If Yerevan’s roads seem more congested lately, it’s because they are. Over the past two decades, the number of privately-owned cars in the city has skyrocketed. The result has been longer commute times, noticeable air and noise pollution, as well as an increase in road-related fatalities.
Fresh out of seven decades of material deprivations, many Armenians view car ownership as a tangible symbol of success in the new economy. The fact that so many of the capital’s car owners are also first-generation drivers is evident in their peculiar driving etiquette. Many routinely violate the traffic code, double park or leave their cars in dangerous locations. God forbid they park a few feet away from their destination and…(gasp)…walk?
Yerevan’s iconic circular street grid, designed by the classically-trained architect Aleksandr Tamanyan was intended for a maximum occupancy of 250,000 people, transported primarily through a state-of-the-art rapid transit network. According to the Armenian Road Police, there are now over half a million privately-registered vehicles in Yerevan alone, and that number continues to rise. The increase in car traffic has been met with a reciprocal spike in traffic-related accidents, many being fatal.
City planners have apparently anticipated the issue. Over the past decade, the city has inaugurated several viaducts designed to divert traffic away from the city center towards major thoroughfares leading out of town. They have also widened some streets (often at the expense of sidewalk space), turned some public space into ersatz parking lots and changed signaling rules on some roads to maintain smooth traffic flow.
The problem with the strategy adopted by Yerevan’s city planners is that it stems from an outdated road administration philosophy that prioritizes managing vehicular traffic over addressing its root causes.
Decades-worth of studies conclusively demonstrate that widening roads or adding lanes to highways do little to reduce congestion. In fact, the practice has the opposite effect. This is because the concept violates a fundamental road management principle: that more lanes encourage more traffic. Any initial reduction in congestion from an expanded road would almost immediately disappear as more people decide to drive on the now seemingly-less-busy road.
There is no quick fix for Yerevan’s ongoing congestion woes. Applying a genuinely permanent solution would require political will, long-term vision, expert involvement, popular support, time – and most of all – deep pockets.
Yerevan’s new mayor Hayk Marutyan has promised to roll out a professionally-designed public transit strategy within the next two years. The plan will cover modern buses, GPS technology, bike lanes and an expansion to the under-utilized metro system. While we can only hope that this plan will be enough to solve some of the city’s long-term transit issues, in the meantime, there are ways to immediately alleviate congestion in town without dipping too deep into municipal coffers.
Here are 5:
Hike the price of parking downtown
A few years ago, the previous mayor sparked public outrage by imposing a paid parking scheme in the city center. The extortion rates? 100 AMD/hour (20c), or 12000 AMD/year ($25). Most readers would probably recognize the yearly price as a fraction of what they pay per day for parking in any major city. Paid street parking in principle has two functions: 1) it acts as a sort of tax to help fund road maintenance costs 2) as a financial dissuasion for drivers from taking their cars into work. Yerevan’s municipality needs to hike the cost of parking in the Pokr Kentron (small center) at least five-fold. Those who might object that such a move would render downtown parking inaccessible for some drivers should note: THAT’S THE POINT!
The notion that bribery is the only way to pass a drivers’ test has become so ingrained in the national psyche that it’s almost a running joke. While authorities have severely clamped down on the practice in recent years, the tens of thousands of drivers who received their licenses through illicit means over the last two decades are still on the streets of Yerevan. One needs only to stand on any street corner in the capital for a few minutes to witness dozens of routine and dangerous traffic code violations.
It shouldn’t be hard for the police to administer random driving tests to ensure that motorists are at least familiar with the basic handling of a motor vehicle or the country’s drivers’ education curriculum. Doing so might take enough dangerous drivers off the streets to save lives.
Tax second vehicles
If the above-cited Road Police figures are accurate, that means that there is one private car for every two people in Yerevan. As the country grows wealthier, families are now buying second or third cars. Thus, mom, dad, lil’ Hagop and the family cat all get to drive themselves to work, compounding the traffic issue further.
Several cities have imposed heavier taxes on the second and third vehicles registered to a single household to promote ride-sharing or carpooling. As Armenia’s exemption window in the Eurasian Customs Union closes next year, this will likely already be the case, but nonetheless, families only need so many cars.
Set strict delivery times
The sheer number of vehicles on Yerevan’s roads may be the primary cause of congestion, but other factors like improper street management are also to blame. The tendency for unlicensed taxis to park in bus stops, for instance, pushes city buses to offload passengers in the middle of busy intersections.
The same is true for delivery trucks. Supermarkets and other stores across the city center receive deliveries at all times of the day, causing all sorts of unnecessary traffic disruptions. Now, such a delivery schedule should pose a logistical nightmare for the stores; commuters have it even worse.
Most cities across the planet have found a simple solution: restrict delivery times to early morning hours. Given that you wouldn’t even find a stray cat on the streets of Yerevan before 10:00 AM, delivery trucks could unload at their leisure without disrupting everyone else around them.
Enforce the law
Ultimately, none of these suggestions would make a dent in the traffic crisis unless the law is adequately enforced. Much of the violations, as mentioned earlier, often take place in full view of Road Police vehicles. Armenia has one of the highest police-to-civilian ratios in the world. Why not put some of these taxpayer-funded officers to work enforcing the law?
While we wait for a permanent solution…
Yerevan’s new municipal government has many innovative tools at its disposal to solve Yerevan’s traffic woes in the long term. The equation for success involves dissuading people from using cars and encouraging the use of public transport. In the meantime, enforcing these five simple rules tomorrow might at best save lives, and at least make life a little more pleasant for the people who call Yerevan home.