Monday, September 19, 2011

Get On the Bus

Unlike many foreigners who live in Moscow, I ride buses daily. I like in a section of the city where the metro is not in walking distance and I do no own a car. I am a foreigner who lives...can you believe this? Like a Russian. So, I have I a lot of time to think about Russian buses, I regularly have to wait for 20 minutes or more for a bus, and often ride buses for 15-20 minutes each way to get to the metro, depending on traffic jams. I have begun to see the Moscow land transport system as an allegory for the problems of the city itself, maybe I spend too much time thinking about such things, but here it goes:

Firstly, buses have schedules which are not followed, or badly planned. I live near a bus depot and from what I can tell, the drivers stand around eating sunflower seeds, playing cards or dominos and smoking cigarettes, and then jump in the buses and all leave at once. I am 3 stops away from the depot, there is no traffic, but I will often stand there for a long time with no buses, and then suddenly 4 buses come and go, then again no buses. This is a common problem in Russia, there is no shortage of rules and plans, just no one follows them.

Then there are the Marshrutkas. For those who may not know there are the mini-buses or vans that are privately owned, and run the routes of the buses, they suggest that they solve problems in the bus system with a capitalist solution, but actually they are not a solution, but a stop gap and one that actually leads to problems in the bus system. Marshrutka drivers will wait at the beginning of the bus routes, wait for the bus drivers to ready themselves or leave, and then travel just ahead of them to maximize the frustrated customers who are sick of waiting for the bus. Therefore all they really do is take money paying customers from the buses and leave the public bus system to transport senior citizens, teenagers with their grandmother's card, people who duck the turnstiles, and me: one of the few people who buy a monthly bus pass. By lowering the paying bus ridership they give the statistical impression that the buses aren't needed, increase the need to increase the bus fare, as well as get in the way at bus stops and intersections by picking up and dropping off riders wherever they damn well please. These Marshrutkas represent the for profit business that exist only because of informal state support. These bus companies are owned by well connected people, they use the bus stops maintained by the city, but have 100% full fair paying riders, at the expense of the existing system.

Then there are the buses themselves. Ever see the huge clouds of black smoke coming from the back of the bus? This apparently because these buses are made to use bad quality fuel, which damages then engines, and instead of repairing or rebuilding the engines they are run until they die. When the engine is damaged and begins to run inefficiently, it produces large clouds of smoke that are quite frankly, bad for the health of the people near by, not to mention the people inside the bus, often times the access doors to the engine compartment from the inside of the bus are damaged, or badly fitting, and excessive amounts of fumes come into the cabin of the bus. Because these poorly running motors need maximum cooling the heating systems, which take their heat from the engine of the bus, are allowed to operate in summer, when temperatures are already unbearable, raising the internal temperature of the bus several degrees. In this, the don't do anything until something badly breaks attitude that we see in Russian society is highlighted.

Also just like the growing inequity of different regions of the cities, there seems to be a different quality in public transport service and availability in different regions of the city. When I am near Leninsky Prospect, I see lots of tramvai, running every 5 minutes, and they're never crowded, because people who live in this area prefer to use their own cars to get around. but in my less prestigious neighborhood, there are only buses, dirty old buses, that run badly. This shows how neighborhoods are becoming more segregated, and better services provided in better parts of the city.

So,here is the point where I should write some clever tie-in, like Russia will mill the modernization bus, or something like that, but I just can't even joke about it anymore. Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it, right, so, here are a few suggestions: The government is going to great lengths to promote the Russian GPS system, to stop Russia's reliance on the US based system. Here is a perfect opportunity. equip these buses with GPS and use the information to track the buses whereabouts, to check if they are leaving on schedule, and to give passengers information as to when buses will arrive at stops. Stop using low quality diesel which destroys the buses engine, makes them run improperly, and produce excessive smoke. This will help the air quality of the city, and be an important step in using cleaner burning diesel in all of Russia, and requiring it's use, improving the air quality, instantly. Regulate Marshrutka operation so that they can not block the bus stops, and so that they can take on and drop off passengers in designated areas only. Improve the quality and safety standards of the bus itself, which will help the health and safety of the passengers. Just like the larger problems of Russia these problems aren't impossible to overcome, but they will take effort, creativity and a realization that things aren't that much harder to do right, then they are to do wrong.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Russian Sidewalks

Brick sidewalks are the surest sign of an oppressive city government. They make no sense, however they are considered a good idea by a few people who want to push construction of them through. It always ends in the same way, concrete sidewalks may not be as pretty, but they are better in most other ways. I'm talking to you Portsmouth NH, and now we can add Moscow Russia.

I'm gonna talk about Moscow's new city government, and sidewalks, it's not just about bricks, yes they're poorly set, and the city's aggressive snow and ice removal will soon lay waste to these new brick paths. In particular I'd like to mention the large square traction assisting paving stones that have been installed in sidewalks throughout Moscow, over the course of year, but now, along with the bricking, their installation has been stepped up as part of this sidewalk program.

The problem is this: I estimate that about 80-90 % of them are installed incorrectly, the few that are installed correctly being coincidental. Let me see if I can describe this. These stones are the square ones that are installed for added traction where sidewalks are lowered to meet the street level, at crosswalks and street corners. The blocks are square and have paralell ribs on the tops, and the biggest problem is they are installed with the ribs facing the wrong way, paralell to the direction that the pedestrian would be walking when they cross them.

Don't believe it? All my Moscow friends can test it for yourself. Walk up to one of them and put your foot on the ribs when they are parallel to your foot, then putting a bit less than half of your weight on that foot try and slide your foot along the stone taking not of how much force you had to exert to make your foot slip. Then rotate your foot so that it's perpendicular to the the ribs, so your foot crosses several of the ribs and try the same thing, it takes a lot more force to make your foot slide, if at all. Now take note of which direction your are facing, 80-90 percent of the time, the answer is NO with the flow of pedestrian traffic.

That this mistake and add to the fact that the ribs are angled downward to the lower surface, and it goes from being traction to a slide. Then add a sloppy coat of yellow enamel paint to make them more slippery, then add a light coat of snow, and they just become something that is not only not helpful to a pedestrian, but more likely to cause a fall.

Then. for even more fun, some of them are installed so that they are recessed into the pavement, giving that ice and snow and water a nice little place to collect.

So, I explain this to some of my friends, but I can never really communicate this to anyone who knows anyone to make some sort of difference, I can't tell the people laying the stones, because of course they don't care one way or the other, and now I'm writing about it in English, so I guess no one who have the ability to do anything about this will be reading this, but I just had to tell someone, so I'm telling you.

It's it possible that no one who is involved really cares? Yes, but also since they are so consistently installed incorrectly someone must have told someone that this is the way it must be done. Maybe this teaches larger lessons about Russian bureaucracy, autocracy, nihilism, or any other symptom of Russia's problems. Take your pick, draw your own conclusion.