The Parking Lot
After work I stepped out of the office to the Garden Ring, and it was immediately clear that the Pyturka (5 series) would be spending the night at the office and that Fred would be taking the Metro. Traffic was immobilized in both directions. In the ten minutes it took me to hike to the Krasny Vorota metro station, not a single car moved in either direction. I surfaced at the Tsvetnoy Bulvar station; the Garden Ring overpass was visible and I set a cement truck on the bridge as a marker. During the seven-minute walk up to the Steakhouse, the cement truck sat in place. Later, I heard the Garden Ring had been constipated for more than four hours. The Spartak football team had to flee their bus to make the match, which was their excuse for losing. Though this was the worst incident this year, sitting in traffic for hours has become routine in Moscow.
Barney once commented, “There is no city in Europe with such wide roads and so few cars, and such traffic problems.” “Few cars?” – Russian drivers are incredulous when I say this, but on a per capita basis auto ownership in Moscow is about a third of big European cities. Private automobile ownership is new to Russia. Sure, a few people saved their rubles and bought a Zhiguli, but they were a luxury in the USSR, and there simply were no foreign cars except for “trophy cars” the Germans left behind on the road back to Berlin in 1945. Wilma’s mom told us that when she finished institute in the early ‘50s and started work as an engineer, only three people had cars – the director, his assistant, and the lab director. In the early 90s, there were literally about 9 gas stations in the city. To avoid queues, petrol trucks along the road became mobile filling stations.
The city has made huge investments in new highway infrastructure. Officials understood early what US road contractors learned after World War II – that unimaginable largesse may be buried away in the construction. For those who now take them for granted, the entire ten-lane, 109-kilometer MKAD and 35 kilometer Third Ring roads have been constructed in the past ten years. Though these large infrastructure changes are necessary, they cannot be made fast enough and the real problem is not infrastructure.
The problem is a combination of both amateur and juvenile drivers who treat the road like a NASCAR track; police who spend more time stopping drivers to collect “fines” rather than directing traffic, and a roadway system that appears to be designed by engineers who take the metro. And then there are the accidents, mostly small rear end collisions, but the vehicles block the road for hours waiting for the GAI to come to write up a report, and the guy with the flat tire who thinks the best place to repair it is in the center of the road, rather than pull over to the side. Every stoplight feels like the starting line of a NASCAR race, the right hand lane is the high-speed passing lane, and the shoulder, if there is one, is the sneak-aroundlane. And the roads are a parking lot, literally, since building codes do not require adequate off-street parking for new malls, office buildings and apartment structures.
Finally, the problem is Russia’s “me first” culture. Four-way stops do not exist in Russia, and they could not exist – it would only be an uncontrolled intersection. The Taganskaya exit on the Garden Ring regularly jams up at least four of five lanes as vehicles fill-swing around into the through lanes to get to the front of the queue into the one lane exit, a typical situation at many other “choke” points in the city. And at any restriction in the road, drivers turn three lanes into five or six tightly packed lanes, slowing everyone down to avoid a collision. Drivers “block the box” at busy intersections, closing off cross traffic that otherwise might move freely. Police do nothing to regulate these situations when they arise. Many drivers are courteous, and driving in Moscow teaches patience if nothing else, but there is more than enough rudeness and selfish drivers to snarl up the entire city.