24 January 2010

Perils of Passage, Part I

One of Moscow's many marvels is its metro systems.  This marvelous mass-transit system is a discussion topic of it own.  This blog is about the dangerous affairs of transit through Moscow roads (and airports in a future posting).

I used to think that LA's traffic was bad until I landed here.  Moscow's traffic is horrible.  This statement is about now, during a time that Muscovites describes as "the [economic] crisis."  I have been told that the roads were far worse during the petroleum boom days; an article in the Wall Street Journal confirms this sentiment:
Some Moscow residents are finding a silver lining to Russia's deepening economic malaise: This city's legendary traffic jams and ceaseless rush hours are easing to a level that is merely annoying.
Here are some photographic evidence of the "good days" when money was flowing in as fast as oil prices were climbing up:

Regrettably, the annoyance is not confined to moving vehicles.  Parking is another stain on the soul of this great city.  The basic rule is that "parking is allowed unless explicitly prohibited."  Because there are no rules unless stated otherwise, one sees very creative, sometimes annoying, and often dangerous parking jobs.

Yes, it does help to be skinny in Moscow

Volvo + Vodka = Parking Under Influence
The traffic movement is hazardous for everyone sharing the road, from the fellow driver to the poor pedestrian.  You may conclude, as many of this city dwellers have, that it is the Muscovite that is at fault because of his driving ways.  Nay, the root of the problem is deeper than that.  Put the average US driver on Moscow's roads and, before long, they will be driving and parking the same way.

One of the random phenomena of this city's roads is the number of lanes on the road at any given time.  For no explicable reason and without sufficient signage, a road may go from 3 down to 2 and up to 4 traffic lanes within a mile.   On faster roads, side guardrails usually are right next to the lane markings (i. e. no shoulder).  In the worst traffic hot spots, three lanes of traffic merge into another five, making it a contest for drivers to try to get through without (hopefully) putting a dent in their cars.   

The WSJ article referenced above provides other reasons:
Traffic analysts blame Moscow's circular-road layout, rampant construction that blocks routes and the city's failure to redevelop the traffic structure to accommodate growing demand, as other European cities have done.
The lack of a city grid and a rapidly growing city are reasons, but they are reasons that cannot be addressed in any meaningful way.  It is not to Moscow's interest to limit growth.  Moreover, Moscow is an historic city; as most historic cities go, Moscow has grown in a radial pattern.

There are simple changes that can be made to improve traffic flow in the city such as making the roads more predictable, making road markings and signs more visible, and metering the traffic and parking in the city (and creating a new revenue sources for the city).  This makes the city more pleasurable and safer for everyone, and diminishes the role of road travel in population control.  But, much to my dismay, most of Moscow seems resigned to accept this situation as is.  There is no clamoring for better.

There are those who do want better, and are in a position to afford it.  For a fee, special license plates can be had that look ordinary to the average observer, but have alphanumeric designations that make the driver of the car immune from the law for the most part.  These privileged license plates are expensive and are affixed to posh, luxury cars.  It is a common scene to see $200K+ cars racing through the streets recklessly, cutting off their fellow drivers in the most flagrant way, and further creating perils of passage for the public.

Alas, Moscow seems resigned to the situation and does not clamor for better.

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