29 January, 2015
Traffic is new in Georgia. So it is not surprising that neither the government nor the public has a very clear idea what it means and what to do with it. The history of traffic in Georgia as in most countries that used to be in the Soviet Union is very different from the rest of the world.

There were traffic jams in some American cities seventy five years ago, and in most American cities fifty years ago. And yet
only twenty five years ago in Georgia, cars were for senior party officials and a small number of people who could afford the payments necessary to get them. For five years after that, it was quite dangerous to drive and carjackings were common. For the next ten years there were more and more cars, but the economy was not that strong and the traffic police were always taking drivers’ money every chance they could. But from ten years ago there was a real boom in car ownership. The government had a policy to keep fuel costs low and not to tax cars. They viewed car ownership as an important symbol of development and progress: Just the opposite of most European countries. For some years, Georgia’s top export category was cars because they were so much cheaper in Georgia than in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
But old habits remained. When only senior party officials had private cars, they liked to drive quickly and didn’t like to stop often. It seems strange to Europeans that cars on Rustaveli don’t have to stop between Freedom Square and Vera but that people crossing the street have to walk underneath the road. Why are cars favored so? Four out of five people in Tbilisi walk or take public transport, only one in five drive in cars or taxis. Why do they get such advantages? Lots of it is because the people have not gotten used to there being so many cars, and the traffic rules, tax system, and even the cultural views are still based on people thinking about cars the way they did twenty five years ago. Most people that walk or take public transport think it is completely natural how few advantages they have compared with how many advantages cars have. When a car blocks a street, the police are quick to fix the problem, when a car blocks a sidewalk, the police do nothing. A good example is Galaktion Tabidze street. It could be a beautiful street if there were no cars, instead it is constantly blocked by cars, giving it a third world, oligarchic feel. The interior ministry spends a great deal of time dealing with cars and drivers, but those who walk or take public transport have no real state entity looking out for them.
In most of Europe and in American cities with population densities similar to Tbilisi’s there is a consensus of what to do about traffic. The first thing, is to gradually move cars out of the middle of the city. Create more and more walking streets, protect walking areas, and outdoor cafes. Often the times for deliveries will be limited to the very early morning hours. Increase taxes on cars and fuel. The Scandinavian countries have a 100 percent tax on cars. The price is doubled. For a non oil-producing country, Georgia has very cheap and extremely low quality fuel. The gasoline and diesel that Georgia uses is both dangerous for the environment and for health. Its quality should be improved and it should be taxed more. Parking enforcement should be increased and parking should cost much more. Congestion charges began in London and are now being charged more and more in many cities. In the case of London, drivers have to pay pounds dollars each time they enter the city during the day. This has greatly and permanently improved traffic in London.
All this increase in tax on cars should go to public transport, better sidewalks, improvements for bicycles. The government recently made the unusual choice of rewarding those who hadn’t paid their fairs for busses and sub­ways. If the tax was even modestly increased on driving cars, it would be enough to make busses and the metro completely free, rather than just free for those who refuse to pay. The payment system on busses is terrible anyway. Many people don’t pay and those who try to enforce payment are not treated well by those who ride busses.
Tbilisi is an old city. One built over centuries for people on foot. At a time when the rest of the developed world is trying to get rid of cars, the government and the people of Tbilisi and other cities should take a careful look at how we deal with this problem. Because the problem is not how to make it easier for cars and drivers but how all different methods of transportation can work in harmony for the betterment of the city and the environment.