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BMW: Blocks My Way... Around Tbilisi!

The Quality of Living Survey 2012 of the international consultancy group Mercer ranks 222 cities in the world according to how livable they are. Tbilisi was ranked on Place 213, provoking furious reactions by many Georgians. On the internet, it is easy to find wild slanders against those who created the ranking and even against those who just referred to it, and there was even an online petition initiated against the ranking.

Without any question, the survey does not capture crucial factors that impact the quality of life. Tbilisi, unlike Lagos in Nigeria that was ranked on Place 202, is a city where one can walk around even at night without being harassed or mugged. Street crime is almost non existent. Moreover, since the anti-corruption measures took effect, Tbilisi’s citizens and visitors are not bothered unnecessarily by government representatives. There is no abuse of power by the police, and government officials do not charge bribes for their services. This is worlds apart from other cities that were ranked close to Tbilisi, like Khartoum in the Sudan. Last not least, Georgians have a culture of decency and hospitality that largely prevents them from cheating or ripping off guests and their fellow citizens. This hugely increases life quality. And one could further extend this list of Tbilisi’s advantages...

However, if one compares Tbilisi with some of the cities in the top 10 of the ranking, like Vienna (Place 1), Zurich (Place 2), Vancouver (Place 5), and Copenhagen (Place 9), there is one striking factor that distinguishes all these places from Tbilisi. The most livable cities in the world go a long way to make the inner city districts attractive for pedestrians, not for cars. Tbilisi, on the other hand, is a city for cars, not for people.


ANTIQUATED CITY PLANNING

Up to the 60ies of the preceding century, the ideal of a “car city” was pursued by progressive city planners worldwide. The idea of pedestrian subways originated in that time – while cars had the privilege to drive on the surface, enjoying sun and fresh air, pedestrians had to go through tunnels that were built under the streets. Complex road structures as the one on Heroes Square in Tbilisi were typical for those times and could be found all over Europe. Nobody anticipated the problems of automobile transportation, everybody was expected to have a car, and it was deemed unnecessary to take into account pedestrians’ needs. On the wave of car enthusiasm, even public transport was reduced. Many cities got rid of their light rails (trams), considered to be mere obstacles for smooth car traffic. While this happened in many cities decades ago, in Tbilisi the light rail was scrapped after the Rose Revolution.

 

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In Tbilisi, pedestrians are forced into dirty tunnels, while cars can drive in the fresh air

 

Very soon, however, the vision of a car city turned into a nightmare. As we know today, positive atmosphere in a city is a comprehensive experience that consists of shopping opportunities, cafes and restaurants that preferably have their tables under the open sky, and walking around in a nice environment that comprises green areas, street artists, and beautiful buildings. In a car city, on the other hand, walking around is unpleasant. There is noise and pollution, and cafes and restaurants do not have their tables outside. Street life is non existent, and with it any positive urban atmosphere goes down the drain. Due to the lack of customers, shops and department stores disappear, and the inner districts of car cities become concrete deserts. The pedestrian subways become stinky, dark tunnels, and people go a long way to avoid using them.

Already in the 70ies, municipalities all over the world tried to correct their mistakes. Broad sidewalks came at the price of having fewer lanes for the cars. Not so in Tbilisi: on the newly renovated Agmashenebeli Ave the sidewalks are often so crowded that one can walk only at snail’s pace. At the same time, the planners decided to have three car lanes in the middle. The Agmashenebeli concept would already have been outdated in the 70ies.

 

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Not surprisingly, pedestrian subways were closed all over the world and replaced by traffic lights and pedestrian crossings

 

In many car cities, the inner districts had transformed into giant parking decks. The beauty of buildings was hardly enjoyable if cars piled up in front of them, and the sidewalks were misused as parking space, further deteriorating the walking experience. Tbilisi today gives a good impression how it was elsewhere in the world in the beginning of the 70ies. In response, cities began to reserve parking lots to the residents of the inner city districts, and parking bans were strictly enforced. Some cities set up large central parking decks, but it turned out that the ample parking space they provided drew additional cars into the city. The most prudent municipalities therefore opted for artificially restricting the availability of parking space, forcing people to resort to means of public transport.

Pedestrian subways were systematically shut down. In order to allow people to cross streets, there was a high density of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. Speed limits reduced pollution and made cycling less hazardous. Today the central avenues in cities that live up to modern standards have strictly enforced speed limits. Rustaveli Avenue, on the other hand, is like a 6 lane high way. But who wants to drink a coffee and enjoy street life next to a highway?

 

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In Tbilisi, sidewalks are misused as parking space and even as additional lanes for cars

 

Prudent cities try actively to deter people from entering the inner city districts by car. All over the world, there are now sophisticated systems in place that allow commuters to park their cars in the outskirts and then continue to the city center by public transport. This requires an upgrade of public transport, which indeed takes place in many cities – new light railways are built from Jerusalem to Berlin at high costs. In some cities that now build new light rails, trams were abolished 50 years ago.


WHY CHANGE ANYTHING?

Don’t dismiss the Mercer ranking too lightheartedly – if you are used to Tbilisi and you walk through Vienna or Copenhagen, you will feel the difference immediately. Tbilisi’s city planning is not lagging some years behind, but it is outdated by 40 years. Yet it is not only some ranking where Tbilisi could improve considerably through the application of modern city planning. The issue has also concrete economic implications.

One is health. Georgia ranks Place 98 according to its life expectancy. Switzerland, represented with Geneva and Zurich in the top 10 of the Mercer ranking, is the country with the second highest life expectancy in the world. While the average Georgian gets 73 years old, the average Swiss citizen dies at an age of 83 years. Of course, there are multiple reasons that cause this difference, but there is no question that car pollution is highly detrimental for health. This is particularly true in a country like Georgia, where many cars with old and very old engines are populating the streets.

 

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Tbilisi has a 6-lane highway in its center

 

In the last years, it became clear that so called particulates emitted from car engines are highly carcinogen and can cause lung problems. These tiny particles, much smaller than ordinary dust, can get into the finest capillaries of the lung and from there even into the blood vessels. As a reaction, strict regulations have been imposed in the European Union, on some days forcing municipalities to block cars from entering the inner city districts to keep the particulate density below the allowance. Without any doubt, the European standards are violated in Tbilisi each and every day.

Another issue is tourism. I was amused to read that an official of the tourism authority claimed that tourists were more concerned about the availability of public toilets in Tbilisi than about the difficulties to cross streets. While virtually no tourist uses public toilets, walking around in Tbilisi is a stressful and unpleasant experience no tourist can escape from. Surely, this is no minor concern for people who want to enjoy their holidays here.

While many problems of Tbilisi are related to a lack of financial resources, making the city attractive through a modern city planning would cost nothing.


The article was first published in Georgia Today - Georgia's leading English language newspaper, published twice weekly.

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Guest - Eric Livny on Monday, 08 July 2013 18:04

I was talking to Jacques Fleury the other day and he made the same point about Tbilisi river banks. In most modern cities of today there is a trend to transform river banks into bustling pedestrian areas. This would be of course more difficult to accomplish in Tbilisi given the mountainous relief which limits the options for east-west traffic to a narrow band between the river and Mta Tsminda. But there should be options to consider on the northern side of the river, which would breath new life into the adjacent neighborhoods, and provide a connection to the renovated Aghmashenebeli street.

I was talking to Jacques Fleury the other day and he made the same point about Tbilisi river banks. In most modern cities of today there is a trend to transform river banks into bustling pedestrian areas. This would be of course more difficult to accomplish in Tbilisi given the mountainous relief which limits the options for east-west traffic to a narrow band between the river and Mta Tsminda. But there should be options to consider on the northern side of the river, which would breath new life into the adjacent neighborhoods, and provide a connection to the renovated Aghmashenebeli street.
Guest - Lasha Nikolaishvili on Sunday, 14 July 2013 13:00

I fully agree with the article. I think one reason for it is that development of Georgia was "devoted" to visitors from international institutions, from which we are raising funds for financing the projects in infrastructure. When they are coming to visit to Georgia, mostly they are moving by cars and the see only the "city for cars." Nobody cared (cares) really about development of the city.

I fully agree with the article. I think one reason for it is that development of Georgia was "devoted" to visitors from international institutions, from which we are raising funds for financing the projects in infrastructure. When they are coming to visit to Georgia, mostly they are moving by cars and the see only the "city for cars." Nobody cared (cares) really about development of the city.
Guest - llabadze on Saturday, 16 November 2013 11:58

This year I have visited few EU cities (Vienna, Prague, Stockholm) and I saw trams even on a very narrow streets without a traffic jams. I saw street life and realized that this is a way we need to structure inner part of Tbilisi. Doing it's not so easy, but it can be done, it has been done, and its being done in many cities around the globe. By making Tbilisi more walkable and more pleasant for more people, we can free ourselves from dependence on the car -- "a gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic devices" [Jeff Speck].

This year I have visited few EU cities (Vienna, Prague, Stockholm) and I saw trams even on a very narrow streets without a traffic jams. I saw street life and realized that this is a way we need to structure inner part of Tbilisi. Doing it's not so easy, but it can be done, it has been done, and its being done in many cities around the globe. By making Tbilisi more walkable and more pleasant for more people, we can free ourselves from dependence on the car -- "a gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic devices" [Jeff Speck].
Guest - John on Thursday, 02 October 2014 14:46

Having the police simply enforce laws about cars parking on sidewalks and making them stop for pedestrians on the zebra crossings would go along way to making this a more pleasant city.

Simply upholding current laws rather than policing from inside of the car and barking orders at people over the megaphone can only be a good thing.

In 2 years that I have lived here I have been hit at least 10 times by cars whilst I was on pedestrian crossings - where else in the world would that happen?.

Having the police simply enforce laws about cars parking on sidewalks and making them stop for pedestrians on the zebra crossings would go along way to making this a more pleasant city. Simply upholding current laws rather than policing from inside of the car and barking orders at people over the megaphone can only be a good thing. In 2 years that I have lived here I have been hit at least 10 times by cars whilst I was on pedestrian crossings - where else in the world would that happen?.
Guest - Eric Livny on Thursday, 02 October 2014 22:00

I am glad you are still alive, after all these attempts on your life, John. You may want to read another blog we've written on the subject of traffic policing - http://www.iset.ge/blog/?p=1903.

I used to live in Moscow for quite a number of years where zebra crossings used to a killing zone. Cars would accelerate instead of slowing down in order to signal: don't you dare to cross! Apparently, the situation in Moscow improved quite dramatically during the past 4-5 years. They've introduced steep fines and started policing in earnest. As a result, both drivers and pedestrians adjusted their expectations and behavior. I don't see why this should not work in Tbilisi...

I am glad you are still alive, after all these attempts on your life, John. You may want to read another blog we've written on the subject of traffic policing - http://www.iset.ge/blog/?p=1903. I used to live in Moscow for quite a number of years where zebra crossings used to a killing zone. Cars would accelerate instead of slowing down in order to signal: don't you dare to cross! Apparently, the situation in Moscow improved quite dramatically during the past 4-5 years. They've introduced steep fines and started policing in earnest. As a result, both drivers and pedestrians adjusted their expectations and behavior. I don't see why this should not work in Tbilisi...
Guest - Daniel Zaretsky on Thursday, 02 October 2014 16:30

I was shocked this past time I was in Tbilisi by how terrible it is for pedestrians and how car-centric everything is. The metro systems already exists, but is in poor shape and doesn't go where many people need to go. The metro system should be modernized and expanded and if you can't do that, at least put in light rail and or trams with right of way.

Furthermore, you are right, the pedestrian underpasses are disgusting. And as an aside, speaking of bad air, I would love to see stricter anti-smoking laws.

I was shocked this past time I was in Tbilisi by how terrible it is for pedestrians and how car-centric everything is. The metro systems already exists, but is in poor shape and doesn't go where many people need to go. The metro system should be modernized and expanded and if you can't do that, at least put in light rail and or trams with right of way. Furthermore, you are right, the pedestrian underpasses are disgusting. And as an aside, speaking of bad air, I would love to see stricter anti-smoking laws.
Guest - Eric Livny on Thursday, 02 October 2014 22:05

The kinds of things you recommend, Daniel, are of course great. However, they would involve considerable cost and time. I am not against better public transportation and cleaner underpasses, however, there are lots of things Tbilisi government could do at almost immediately and at almost no cost. It could even generate additional revenue by charging drivers for going through the center, or parking.

The kinds of things you recommend, Daniel, are of course great. However, they would involve considerable cost and time. I am not against better public transportation and cleaner underpasses, however, there are lots of things Tbilisi government could do at almost immediately and at almost no cost. It could even generate additional revenue by charging drivers for going through the center, or parking.
Guest - Daniel Zaretsky on Thursday, 02 October 2014 22:08

Agree with you, Eric, there are long-term and costly things and some logical, easier and more short-term things they could do, like what you suggest.

Agree with you, Eric, there are long-term and costly things and some logical, easier and more short-term things they could do, like what you suggest.
Nodar on Sunday, 17 April 2016 17:33

Tbilisi, on the other hand, is a city for cars, not for people.(Florian Biermann) This is absolutely true for Tbilisi and this blog describes living standards for pedestrians perfectly. Sidewalks in Aghmashenebeli Ave is nightmare because I live near that street and all day I need almost ten minute to escape pedestrians jam.
I agree with Lasha Nikolaishvili, that Tbilisi is designed for visitors, but if we (Georgians) are proud of our hospitality why foreign visitors are hit when they cross the streets?
It is obvious that the city needs planning and around our city we can see street art protesting this facts by posting on the walls the pictures City needs planning.

[b]Tbilisi, on the other hand, is a city for cars, not for people.(Florian Biermann) [/b] This is absolutely true for Tbilisi and this blog describes living standards for pedestrians perfectly. Sidewalks in Aghmashenebeli Ave is nightmare because I live near that street and all day I need almost ten minute to escape pedestrians jam. I agree with [b]Lasha Nikolaishvili[/b], that Tbilisi is designed for visitors, but if we (Georgians) are proud of our hospitality why foreign visitors are hit when they cross the streets? It is obvious that the city needs planning and around our city we can see street art protesting this facts by posting on the walls the pictures [b]City needs planning[/b].
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