Moscow Chokes on Growing Traffic Problems

There used to be a limited number of cars in the former Soviet Union. But now that Moscow is reaping windfall profits from high oil prices, the Russian capital is now overwhelmed with traffic. And conditions are only expected to get deteriorate.

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And in Russia, the new rich there may be thrilled about the country's oil and gas boom, but Russians are less happy about one of its nasty side effects: the growing number of cars.

Muscovites are increasingly angry about the city's massive traffic jams. With many Russians flocking to buy cars, the problem will only get worse.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: The Garden Ring isn't Moscow's most aptly named road. There's very little greenery here, just many lanes of asphalt circling the city's center. It's perhaps Moscow's busiest road, and the traffic is dreadful.

Standing by one of the Garden Ring's main intersections on a cold, gray afternoon, I can see cars backed up as far as the eye can see. Many of them are late-model Mercedes, BMWs and Audis with dark, tinted windows. There are lots of Fords and Peugeots and surprisingly few Soviet Aero Ladas(ph).

Andre Schionkov(ph) is sitting behind the wheel of a Toyota next to me.

Mr. ANDRE SCHIONKOV: (Through translator) It's really bad. It's practically impossible to get around by car. Sometimes I just leave my car and take the Metro. It's very difficult.

FEIFER: Reckless drivers often disobey traffic rules, helping create an average of 1,000 accidents a day. Notoriously corrupt traffic police often spend their time seeking bribes instead of enforcing regulations. Drivers like Andre Schionkov worry that there's no driving culture in Russia.

Mr. SCHIONKOV: (Through translator) Part of the problem is that a lot of people who can't find work outside Moscow drive into the city. It creates an unmanageable stream of cars every day.

FEIFER: Commuters spend hours in traffic everyday. Just getting to appointments within the city's center can often take over an hour. On a particularly bad night, members of a top soccer team were forced to abandon their bus and traffic and take the subway. They barely made it on time for the kickoff of an important match.

Sergei Trafumov(ph) is a policeman controlling traffic at The Garden Ring intersection.

Mr. SERGEI TRAFUMOV (Policeman): (Through translator) It's getting worse every year. The roads can't handle it anymore, and almost nothing's being done to address the growing parking problem.

FEIFER: Moscow has 3 million registered cars, an increase of more than 10 times since the end of communism. Under the Soviet era, if you were an average citizen who wanted to buy a car, you'd had to spend years on a waiting list first. Roads like The Garden Ring used to be almost empty. Nikolai Kaneiv(ph) remembers those years.

Mr. NIKOLAI KANEIV: (Through translator) There were trees everywhere here, trams. The road was pretty narrow. It was completely different. There were almost no cars at all, not the constant flow you see now.

(Soundbite of construction equipment)

FEIFER: The city authorities are building underpasses and eliminating traffic lights to ease the problem. Here on the Leningrad highway, a main artery leading into the center, workers are widening the road. But experts say making the city more accessible by car will only invite more congestion, and the city's underfunded and overstretched public transportation system would need a major overhaul to provide an adequate alternative for drivers.

When I spoke to liberal legislator Victor Pakmelkin(ph) in his office, he said the biggest problem is the lack of a single administrative body to oversee the city's traffic.

Mr. VICTOR PAKMELKIN (Legislator, Moscow): (Through translator) No one in government is ultimately responsible. That's the heart of the matter. As a result, city authorities blame federal officials, and each agency has its own explanation for the mess.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

FEIFER: Back on The Garden Ring, the traffic continues to build as the day wears on. With many major Western manufacturers setting up factories in Russia and dealers selling more cars everyday, Moscowvites say some time very soon, all movement will simply grind to a halt.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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