The End of Cars
12 July, 2012

Today, Georgia's number one export is used cars. I have heard many senior government officials say this to internationals as a way of explaining the sort of reforms the government has implemented. And it really is a great example. The sale, inspection, and ownership of cars
has always been a focal point for corruption around the world. This certainly was true during the Soviet period as well as under Shevardnadze. Because of these lauded reforms, car ownership is now open to many more people in Georgia. The system is so good that people in neighboring countries often prefer buying used cars from Georgia rather than getting them directly from the source.

 

Domestically, the success of these reforms is illustrated even in taxi use. Georgia is unique in that there is no regulation of taxi's or of taxi drivers. The government feels that this is a way to help people, since it allows anybody with a driver's license who can get their hands on a car to make some money. Certainly if taxis were regulated, there would be a significant jump in their cost. The authorities take the view that the number of cars on the road is an indicator of successful economic growth. And since all these cars need somewhere to go, this has promoted a big roads building program, particularly within Tbilisi. Building roads is viewed as a good method to employ people, a top priority of the leadership.



But let's take a look at the downsides of this emphasis on car ownership and road building. I come from a city like many in the Western United States that was largely built after WWII.  Those cities have extremely low population densities because they were designed and
built for families with two cars. That requires huge roads and highways, parking lots and thousands of hectares of houses with garages. The problem with that type of city is not only that they are ugly but that these days young, creative people don't want to live in them. Young people with skills that promote sustainable economic growth flock to cities with great public transit systems, where it is easy and pleasant to walk around, where there are fewer cars per capita. Everybody wants to attract those people. So when people abroad hear officials point with pride at how many cars Georgia has, it sounds a little strange.

 

Also, it is not clear that building roads is the best way to promote jobs when looking at the alternative. For years there has been a discussion about putting trams back in Tbilisi. Most of the highly developed cities in Europe have or are putting trams in. This hasn't happened yet in Georgia. But if you take the roads budget inside of cities and between cities, and compare that to the inter-city train budget and the intra-city tram budget, it may be that building roads
creates fewer jobs.



Certainly car ownership has become easier and cheaper, but walking in Tbilisi has become much more difficult. The government has not created a safe and pleasant environment for pedestrians. Maybe that is because government officials have government paid for cars and drivers, and so
never walk on the streets or use public transit. I certainly don't see them. The fastest way to change Georgia's transit policy would be for the government to stop paying for these cars and drivers. Parking in Tbilisi was privatized and nobody understands how or when the foreign
company given those rights chooses to enforce them. The result is that there are cars on sidewalks everywhere. Tbilisi is the only capital city I have been to in the developed world where people walking on the sidewalks of the major streets have to wind their way through parked cars. (Full disclosure: I am a part of an organization that supports the rights of pedestrians www.IarePekhit.org.) People who walk in cities deserve more consideration than they get in Georgia.

 

Finally, the rise of cars is quickly changing city geography, particularly of Tbilisi but on Batumi as well. Before 2004, almost everywhere could be reached easily by a combination of public
transportation and walking, something which all developed cities are working towards. In Tbilisi the opposite is happening. Try walking through Hero's Square. Now there are shopping malls being built on the outskirts of the city, like those in the post-WWII era US cities. By contrast, in America the older cities that young, creative people want to live in-like New York and San Francisco-they don't have shopping malls, the city itself is a shopping mall. Unfortunately, in the
center of Tbilisi many big buildings are empty: they were privatized and now just sit empty, with broken sidewalks in front, a reminder that the city center is not a priority.



In this era of human caused climate change - something that practically everybody in the EU agrees is a clear and present danger - promoting both individual car ownership and roads building projects on a grand scale is a mistake. A mistake we can fix. Cars are disappearing from the streets of the world's richest cities. Municipal authorities are doing everything they can to get rid of them, and these cities are much nicer and more successful as a result. Some cities, those that were built for cars rather than people, will suffer with that change. But Georgia's cities, being old and beautiful, are well positioned to make that change in the coming decades. Let's keep our cities for people and not for cars.