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Moscow Diary: Traffic jams

The BBC's James Rodgers in Moscow reports on the Russian passion for cars and how the capital's roads have changed since communist times. His diary is published fortnightly.

STUCK IN TRAFFIC

"You must have seen a lot of changes," people often say when I tell them I first came to Moscow in the last years of the Soviet Union.

Moscow traffic jam
A Moscow traffic jam: Major roads are often clogged with cars
If there is one thing which stands out above all others, it's the traffic.

There was a joke in Soviet times. It went something like this:

Sergei had been waiting for ages to hear when he would get his new car. Finally, the call came. "We'll deliver it on Tuesday 12th March, 19xx" (here you'd add a date in about five years' time).

"Oh no," says Sergei. "That's the day they're coming to fix the washing machine."

Sergei wouldn't have to wait that long these days. Foreign manufacturers have flocked to Russia. They've set up factories here to feed the insatiable demand for a set of wheels.

Late last year, the authorities in Moscow estimated that there were three million cars registered in the Russian capital. That number is growing by 10% annually. Many more are driven into the city every day.

It's the most obvious sign of Russia's new wealth.

In the dying days of the USSR, car parts were in such short supply that motorists went to extraordinary lengths to frustrate thieves.

If it began to rain, drivers would suddenly leap from their vehicles to tend to their windscreen wipers. They kept their wiper blades in the glove compartment. Leaving them on an unattended parked car was an invitation to robbers. A replacement set was hard to come by.

Now there are shops stacked with spare parts. Some of them are even open round-the-clock.

Sometimes it feels like there's heavy traffic 24 hours a day, too.

President Putin at wheel of new car at Avtovaz plant, 18 May 07
Russia's new models are a far cry from boxy Soviet-era cars
Moscow has extraordinarily wide roads. Its inner circular route is called "The Garden Ring". I suppose it must once have been green.

Now it's six lanes of traffic which often moves painfully slowly. Last autumn, it ground to a complete stop. The Spartak football team's bus got stuck. The players had to finish their journey to the stadium by metro.

You can understand why the desire for car ownership is so strong here. For decades, getting behind the wheel was nothing more than a dream for many people here. Millions more Russians now have the chance to take to the road.

But one of the side-effects is that it's impossible to be sure how long it will take you to get anywhere by car. There are fears that it will begin to take a toll on the economy. There were even reports last year that the mayor was considering making city employees start their working day at 0700 so they could beat the traffic.

That hasn't happened - at least, not yet. It's unlikely to be popular in a city where, in midwinter, it doesn't get light until 0900.

So what's the answer? Some Muscovites ask me about the congestion charge in London. In a city where having to pay to park is still considered daylight robbery, the idea of paying to drive won't be an overnight hit.

DRIVEN UNDERGROUND

If you want to follow Spartak and take to the metro to beat the traffic, beware.

Moscow metro
The Moscow metro is fast and efficient - but also very popular
Moscow's underground railway system is a model of speed and efficiency. It puts London - with its frequent delays and seemingly endless engineering works - to shame.

But it too risks becoming a victim of the city's economic success. The rush hour seems never to end. There are just too many commuters crowding into the carriages.

There is one job - left over from the Soviet era - which is designed to help.

At the bottom of the escalators stands a small glass box. It is the workplace of a metro employee. Armed with nothing more than a microphone, they sit there for hours on end telling people to stand still, hurry up, or behave themselves. It's like a living museum exhibit of the communist state.

Unfortunately, a similar system is unlikely to end congestion on the roads. Russia already has thousands of traffic police. Motorists do their best to avoid them.

Maybe the solution lies elsewhere. The communists have little prospect of electoral success in today's Russia. All the same, whatever failings their system had, there were far fewer traffic jams when they were in charge.

Maybe they could sort it out. Perhaps Sergei in the joke would have to go back to waiting five years for a car, but at least he could keep moving once he got it.


Your comments:

An interesting and educational article. We in developing countries (eg here in Uganda) could learn about the situation to prepare for such incidences. The question would then be: Should governments restrict importing cars or promote public transport systems such as trains or buses? Here in Kampala we already have somewhat similar problem as in Moscow, with commuter taxis - "matatu" flooding everywhere in the city. Many thanks to James for the wonderful observation in Moscow!
Peter Olanya, Kampala, Uganda

Try living in Cairo. Whilst you may have more cars on the road than here at least your drivers are polite. Here you have three lanes for traffic but if you sit in your car you can usually count at least six lines or more of traffic. If there is a space in Cairo there is something in it. I recently visited Moscow and I would much prefer to drive in Moscow than Cairo any day. As for your underground it is fantastic.
Janet, Egypt

The picture of traffic, taken from the bridge by St Basil's of the embankment alongside the Kremlin is not showing heavy traffic - it is clear that the traffic is moving. Why could you not show a real Moscow traffic jam? For instance, on the opposite side of the river from the picture, it can take over an hour to move 400m!
Richard, Moscow

Traffic in Moscow is indeed a nightmare. I had the same impression when I noticed the changes that occurred in post communist Russia. I think the main problem is that you cannot walk or cycle to work in a city that big, the distances and the cold in the winter are just impossible to avoid. I have also noticed that the quality of the roads has improved a lot with time, but I wish Moscow will stay a green city nonetheless, because large roads do not make a capital nice.
Dimitri, Paris, France

JAMES RODGERS IN MOSCOW

James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow


MAY - OCT 2008
 

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008
 

FEBRUARY - AUGUST 2007
 

IN DEPTH


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