Tbilisi’s Car Problem

Op-Ed

I am a visitor to your country. I come from Bergen, Norway, but this year I’m living in Tbilisi with my family. Georgia is interestingly different from Norway, and I very much appreciate living here. Among other things, your hospitality, culture, food and wine are amazing. But Georgia has one big problem. The cars. I have observed this problem in several parts of the country, for example in Batumi and Kashuri, where I have stayed for shorter periods of time. But I think the problem is particularly acute for Tbilisi. The cars occupy the city. Since I visited Tbilisi for the first time in 2015, the situation has worsened.

Four problems

As I see it, the cars of Tbilisi represent four interrelated problems. First, they take up a lot of space in the city. The cars are parked everywhere, not only on the streets but also on the sidewalks where people walk, outside of shops, on play areas, etc. The boundary between street and sidewalk is almost non-existant in many places. This is striking to someone who is used to car parking in designated parking areas. In Norway, you would get fined for parking on the sidewalk.

We live in the Didube district where there is a lot of car traffic. I dare say that in terms of getting around the city, there is one Tbilisi for people without children, and one for people with children (or for handicapped people). We have two small children, so we often use a stroller. This is a living nightmare. Because many cars are parked on the sidewalks, it is sometimes very difficult to move around in the city. We are often forced onto the streets with our children because the cars are parked in our way. This is very uncomfortable and also dangerous.

I am aware that cars are valuable to many citizens of Tbilisi. They are an important means of transport, and indispensable to many in their businesses. But these benefits need to be weighed against the costs. Despite its benefits, car traffic contributes to reduced life quality for many citizens of Tbilisi. It makes it difficult to move around in the city, and the bad air quality prevents many people from going outside, especially people with asthma.

This brings me to the second problem of cars – they pollute the air. With economic development comes both benefits and burdens. Among the burdens is air pollution. Studies show that the air in Tbilisi is becoming more and more polluted. In fact, Tbilisi is on the list of cities in the world where air pollution is a critical problem. The health effects of air pollution are undisputed and serious. One third of all deaths from lung cancer, stroke and heart disease are caused by air pollution. If you add to that the effects of smoking tobacco – which is also a serious health issue in Georgia – the picture looks bleak. The percentage of deaths attributed to air pollution is very high in Georgia compared to other countries.

Third, car traffic not only pollutes the air locally, but also contributes to the global problem of climate change. We know that the main trigger of climate change is the burning of fossil fuel. Since this is a global problem, solving it will require the joint efforts of countries worldwide. Unfortunately, time is running out, and unless we act fast, there is a danger that we will not be able to prevent catastrophic climate change. This raises a question about what role Georgia will play in the fight against global warming.

There are some signs that Georgia is taking steps to reduce air pollution and to mitigate climate change. As in many other cities around the world, Tbilisi has seen a greening of cars. The recent taxi reform is an example of a step in the right direction. There are now many hybrid cars in Tbilisi, and environmentally friendly buses are replacing the old yellow buses. These are all positive developments. However, they are overshadowed by the fact that a large percentage of Tbilisi’s citizens use private cars as their preferred means of transport. The number of private cars has increased considerably over the past decade. In fact, it is reported to have almost doubled in the last five-year period.

Even though many countries in recent years have replaced fossil fuel cars with hybrid and electric vehicles, the effects have been miniscule. According to a recent report from World Energy Outlook, SUVs were the second largest contributor to the increase in global carbon emissions from 2010 to 2018. The shift towards SUVs, which is also seen in Georgia, has outweighed both efficiency improvements in smaller cars and carbon savings from electric cars. Car manufacturers plan several electric models in the coming years, but this will not have its intended benefits unless there is a decrease in fossil fuel vehicles, especially SUVs.

These three problems contribute to a fourth. Georgia has seen a rise in tourism over the past years, and people from all around the world now come to appreciate everything your country has to offer. However, there is reason to worry that cars and car traffic will have a negative effect on tourism. With cars parked everywhere, increasing traffic jams, and polluted air, people may not want to visit Georgia. This is bad news indeed.

What should be done?

I realize that I may come across as someone who is coming to your country only to complain about the sad state of affairs for cars here. Perhaps some even think that I am moralizing about how you have handled this problem. But I am writing this because I care about Georgia, and in particular about Tbilisi. My wife is Georgian, and we have family here. Moreover, I don’t think I’m only speaking for myself. I see the daily disadvantages of car traffic for Georgians. Many of them find it very hard to move in the city because of the traffic. The increasing number of traffic jams also means that it takes time to travel around in Tbilisi. The opportunity costs of people not being able to move around in the city are probably considerable.

I am not judging you for failing to tackle this problem adequately. In my hometown, Bergen, cars also cause many problems, among them air pollution. Our politicians are, in my opinion, not doing enough to combat the situation. As citizens we can try to influence politics by voicing our opinion. Here, I am trying to bring attention to what I see as a major problem for Tbilisi. The city desperately needs a new car policy.

Tbilisi is of course not the only city in the world with a car problem. Privatization of cars has taken place in many parts of the world in the past decades, and many countries face the same challenges as Georgia. Moreover, the conflict between pedestrians and cars is not unique to Tbilisi. It is a problem we find in many cities around the world, and one which is caused by modern urbanization. It is a challenge to urban planners and others trying to find modes of living where cars and people can co-exist.

I think we need to imagine a new Tbilisi where the cars are not dominating the city. What concretely can be done?

Some cities have tried to introduce a ban on cars with odd or even numbers at the end of their registration on days with poor air quality. In my hometown Bergen, this had some effect, but only temporarily. I’m not sure this would work in Tbilisi. Given that there is a need to reduce the number of cars here, one should consider various incentives that would make it more difficult for people to buy and own a car. As a matter of fact, too many cars are imported to Georgia each year. Higher taxes would presumably have some effect on the number of imported cars. Furthermore, a new system of car parking must be put in place so that cars don’t occupy pedestrian zones. This will require considerable infrastructure improvements. Also, such a car parking system will need to be regulated, where people who fail to comply are fined.

In order to combat traffic jams, it’s necessary to improve public transport. The introduction of new buses is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. Moreover, Tbilisi desperately needs pedestrian zones, green zones, and ideally also bike lanes. There are understandably very few bikers in Tbilisi, but bicycles are an environmentally friendly mode of transport. Norway leads the way when it comes to electric vehicles, but many Norwegians also use electric bicycles. This generates both environmental and health benefits.

The future modernization of Georgia and Tbilisi requires a serious effort to deal with the car problem. Imagine people driving electric cars and bicycles in Tbilisi? It could happen. Let’s hope it does!

By Espen Gamlund Professor of Philosophy University of Bergen, Norway

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