This post comes from Huseyn Abdullayev in Baku. He runs the popular Transport for Baku page on Facebook. I have long argued that the best thing we can do for post-socialist cities is to put a copy of ‘Induced Transport Theory 101’ on the desk of each urban policy maker in the region. Huseyn too is a real warrior for calling out the problem of ‘induced transport’ and here he busts the myth that you can deal with Baku’s congestion problem by building more roads.
If you have ideas you want to share, and want to write a guest post for Urbanistan, please just get in touch! Over to Huseyn….
Today I want to disappoint you a little; mass automobile mobility in Baku is not possible. Not because our drivers violate the traffic rules in large numbers, not because the traffic organization in our city is limping on both legs, but first of all because there is not enough road space for all who want to go. The first two reasons, of course, are also very important, but by large they are partly generated by a limited resource of the street-road network.
Knowledgeable people will argue with me that there are not so many cars in Baku, especially when compared with large cities of the developed countries. Yes, partly this is true, now in Baku there about 250-300 cars per thousand people, which in principle is not much less than this figure in major European cities. On the other hand, the level of motorization in the American cities is several times higher, for example, in the metropolitan area of New York or Los Angeles, motorization achieves fantastic 850-900 vehicles per thousand inhabitants. However, the level of motorization is not so important; it is only important how a particular city is adapted to mass motorization. In other words, the most important indicator is the ratio of the area of the street-road to the number of cars.
Cities for cars
American cities are the most motorized areas in the world. Historically, urban transportation policy in the US, which tried to optimize cities for increasing level of motorization, has led to the fact that the area of roads in major American cities is more than 30% of the total area of the city. One car accounts for 100-150 square meters of roads. Let’s have look what such cities for cars look like.
The central part of such cities for cars usually looks like this:
High motorization requires a large amount of parking space:
The downtowns of such cities are usually sparsely populated and consist of offices and parking lots:
The road infrastructure with high throughput capacity permeates the whole city; interchanges and overpasses are everywhere.
Cities adapted for cars have one feature: such cities sprawl with low density, car oriented development.
Because of this feature, such cities are very difficult to provide with quality public transport. Accordingly, if a resident does not have a car or cannot drive, then the life of such a resident is not very comfortable. However, all these measures still do not save the city from traffic jams. For example, large US cities beat anti-records on the level of congestion on the roads every year.
What about Baku?
Baku, like practically all former Soviet cities, was not designed for a high level of motorization. Back then, it was naively believed that in the 21st century the level of motorization in the Soviet Union would hardly exceed 150 cars per thousand people. The street network and urban development were designed in accordance with this calculation.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a new construction boom began in Baku: the central part of the city became denser, and the periphery actively and chaotically expanded. At the same time, motorization grew, and for 20 years, it increased 5-6 times. Now, in most post-soviet cities, the density of the road network is 25-30 square meters per vehicle, that is, slightly more than the car’s own area. I recall that for the cities for cars this figure should be above 100.
This is the urban core of Baku:
Virtually all activity is concentrated here. Despite the numerous attempts to expand the road’s capacity in the past 10 years, the density of the road network here is not very high.
This is what the real Baku agglomeration or metropolitan area looks like:
The real problem of Baku transportation is the chaotic growth of urban suburban areas. Currently, the administrative territory of the city is 2.188 square kilometers, but this is not all. A significant part of the Absheron region and the city of Sumgait actually form a single agglomeration with Baku. The density of the population throughout the agglomeration is incredibly different. If in the central part of Baku, that is, the urban core has a population density of about 10 thousand people per 1 square kilometer (as in Europe), then in the rest of the agglomeration the average density is much lower, 600-700 people per square kilometer (as in suburbs of American cities).
At the moment, the total transport collapse in Baku is restrained only by the fact that the most of residents of the Baku suburbs cannot afford to buy a car. People living in the suburbs have to use very poor quality, dangerous and uncomfortable public transport, and terrible pedestrian infrastructure.
Is it possible to adapt Baku to mass motorization?
Short answer is no. In order to adapt Baku for mass motorization we will need to demolish the large part of existing urban core. It is also useful to understand that all attempts to increase the throughput capacity of streets and avenues, which we observed in the recent 10 years, have a modest impact on the size of the street-road network. Even if the traffic police in one day will start to perform exemplary and will begin to fine all violators and perfectly regulate the traffic, this too will not help as well. More precisely, the temporary effect of such measures will certainly be there, but later the congestion will return to the streets of the city. More roads lead to even more cars on the streets of the city. In science, this phenomenon is well-studied and called induced demand.
In order to optimize the city, even to the current level of motorization, it is necessary to massively demolish the existing urban structures. Completely new road constructions projects would have a real positive effect, for example, such new developments as Baku Ring Highway or Zikh highway. However, such greenfield projects are few and extremely expensive. To increase the number of such new roads would have to ruin the city.
What do we need to do?
This is not true that there is no need to build new roads. It is necessary to build such road infrastructure that makes possible to divert the transit flow of cars from the city center. In addition, it is necessary to improve the connectivity of the street-road network, so that cars do not wind unnecessary kilometers, loading the main arteries of the city.
Finally, we need to understand the basic postulate of modern transport policy, described as a “carrots and sticks policy”. The stick is discouragement of driving by increasing the price of their car usage, for example, paid parking. Carrot is a quality improvement of public transport, its integration, accessibility and convenience. At the same time, it is also necessary to improve the pedestrian infrastructure, without which urban mobility cannot exist.