New Tbilisi buses - a welcome but insufficient step
On January 19, Tbilisi Mayor Davit Narmania announced plans to purchase 150 new buses for the city's public transportation through a loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). According to information provided on the EBRD website, the total cost of the project is EUR 37 million, of which EBRD will extend a sovereign loan of EUR 27 million, while the remaining EUR 10 million will be provided by international donors in the form of a capital grant.
Improving the quality of public transportation is extremely important for solving a number of serious problems currently faced by Tbilisi as well as ensuring its sustainable development. In the long run, increasing the use of public transportation is the only method of reducing traffic congestion and air pollution in the city. Currently, however, citizens are not inclined to using public transportation, with outdated buses being one of the main reasons. Therefore, the City Hall’s decision to purchase new buses is to be welcomed.
Simply adding new buses, however, will not lead to any significant improvement, unless the following steps of making public transportation more attractive are also taken:
Purchasing high quality buses and ensuring their constant maintenance. In the last decade, the city government has purchased new buses on several occasions. However, these buses did not meet a number of important requirements to start with. For example, the buses were not adapted to the needs of persons with disabilities or the Tbilisi climate. In addition, new buses were not properly maintained, which led to their rapid aging.
Introduction of a priority system for public transportation. In order to increase the use of public transportation, many countries make use of a system that grants priority to public transportation over private vehicles on city streets. This can be accomplished by designating bus exclusive lanes on the main avenues of the city.
Protection of pedestrian rights. The popularity of public transportation is directly related to how comfortable it is to walk on foot around the city (after all, each instance of using public transportation starts and finishes with a walk). In this respect the current situation in Tbilisi is dire, since sidewalks on many of the city streets are either damaged or blocked by illegally parked cars and construction waste. In addition, it is impossible to safely and comfortably cross the street near many bus stops due to absence of traffic lights and/or crosswalks.
Determining the rules of conduct for public transport drivers, improving their qualification, and ensuring adequate working conditions. The behavior of bus and minibus drivers in Tbilisi often raises a suspicion that they do not undergo proper training and do not possess the skills necessary for a public transport driver. This creates discomfort for passengers, and in some cases poses a direct threat to their life and health. In addition, public transport drivers commonly violate the rules of proper conduct (e.g. smoking). In order to remedy these problems, mandatory rules of conduct must be determined, and public transport drivers must undergo additional training. Finally, adequate working conditions must also be ensured in order to attract more qualified candidates.
Developing a unified policy on urban transport and mobility in line with modern principles of urban planning. To this day Tbilisi does not have a unified policy on transport and mobility. Without such a policy infrastructural projects undertaken over the last decade in various parts of the city were often based on outdated Soviet models, gave priority to private vehicles, paid less attention to pedestrian rights and the development of public transportation, and therefore were completely inconsistent with modern principles of sustainable urban development. The EBRD has emphasized Tbilisi government's commitment to develop a Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan. This plan must be developed through an open process with the involvement of all interested organizations and relevant specialists.
The decision to purchase new buses for Tbilisi public transportation is a step in the right direction. However, this will not lead to the desired outcome, unless executed as part of a well-calculated unified policy. We believe that implementing the above recommendations will improve the quality and attractiveness of Tbilisi public transportation, and contribute to the long-term sustainable development of the city.