Showing posts with label Transport. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Transport. Show all posts

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Fools and roads

Russia, Gogol may have said, has two misfortunes: fools and roads. If Gogol didn't say it, Pushkin did, or possibly Karamzin (a 19th century historian) - the point is, somehow or other this has come to be a famous saying. The fools issue is a given in all countries. I don't know if you've met any people, but if you have you will know that most people think most other people are morons. This has been a constant in society for a long time - read Pliny or Marcus Aurelius or Cicero (but only the last one if you are prepared to have your idealistic vision of the man smashed to pieces and trampled into the dust). I am sure there must have been an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for "idiot". You could probably work out what it was by seeing which hieroglyph is the most common.

The roads thing is more interesting. It's not clear from the saying whether the problem is that the roads exist, that their condition isn't good, or that they don't exist at all. Google would suggest the latter two - search for "Russian roads" and you'll see all sorts of horror pictures of cars trapped in window-height mud after a rain storm. However, judging by some of the comments alongside them, at least some of these pictures are either not of where they say they are of, or were taken a long time ago and the situation has improved since them.

Maybe I am being incredibly naive, but I just don't believe this can be a regular occurrence. Locals would be too smart to get themselves into this situation, and if the roads were normally this bad people would just drive off-road like in Mongolia. Photo from
When I was travelling the Trans-siberian last summer there were long stretches of the railtrack that went alongside what looked to me like a perfectly fine road - tarmac/gravel and everything. I also met an English guy in Ulan-Ude who had driven there from London - not in one of those transformer-like monsters with giant wheels, but in a normal car - and he said the roads had been fine. The only time I personally ended up driving on an appalling/non-existent road was between Irkutsk and the shores of Lake Baikal to get a boat to Olkhon Island. In some places there was a mud track, but it was very uneven and often disappeared altogether. The whole journey took five hours to go 250km, and along the way we passed overturned trucks and cars that had misjudged the steepness of the camber (it was very steep at times) or the depth of a pothole. But on the way back from Olkhon island a week later the same mashrutka went along a normal gravelled road! So either the Russians are super road-builders extraordinaire or the first mashrutka driver was on crack and took us a needlessly bad way. Maybe he just hated his suspension and wanted it to suffer. It's possible that further north, or in more remote locations the roads are very bad, but I haven't been there so I can't say.

I'll admit that around Moscow some of the road surfaces could do with replacing. There are some alarming pot holes on roads along which people drive pretty fast. There is also a problem with the capacity of the roads - the main route between Moscow and St Petersburg is currently a single lane in each direction for most of the way, which is clearly ridiculous (although there is a new toll road being built currently, the first parts of which will open next year), and in Moscow the traffic jams are worse than I can possibly describe. Although Russia spends a larger percentage of its GDP on roads than the US does, as pointed out by President Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address, it's a much bigger country and it is starting out from a much less roady position. Russia has a paved road network less than 10% of the size of the US's, and only 5% of its total road network is considered to be "good quality". Investment spending collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union and only recovered to the world average in 2007, and since then the financial crisis has caused infrastructure spending plans to be chucked out the window. Plus, when the government does spend, they get very few miles of road for their money - this article from the Telegraph estimated road building is six times more expensive in Russia than in the US or the EU.

Another problem is that too many people act like fools on the roads. Partly this is because you can buy a driving license here without having to do any kind of training or test (illegally, obviously). What happens next depends on what kind of a lunatic you are. If you are a misanthropic lunatic, you will drive around in your car and possibly kill someone. If you are just an idiotic lunatic you will be too concerned about killing someone to do this, so you will not drive, and will instead just have wasted the money you spent on bribing everyone to get the license in the first place. 

I have also seen some pretty spectacularly bad driving on the roads - either collectively or individually. In St Petersburg I saw a car reverse at high speed straight down a main road, although for various reasons I think he may have been trying to get away from the police, in which case he was successful so...well done. In Moscow cars frequently drive up the tram tracks to try and bypass the traffic, which at times has the lovely side effect of preventing the trams from moving, which creates gridlock at intersections when aided by the Manhattan-like compulsion of all drivers to enter a box junction even if the exit is blocked (and unlike Manhattan, this is technically forbidden because in Russia, as in the UK, all junctions are box junctions). I spent half an hour on a tram once whilst it tried to turn left from a main road to a minor one. Drivers were so desperate to get across the intersection that all rules - including sticking to your own side of the road - were abandoned as people tried to weave their way through the traffic.

Finally, there is a big problem in Moscow regarding the use of sirens. These are given out to help people bypass traffic jams, officially only to members of the Duma etc, and officially only for use in emergencies (like trying to get to a vote), but in practice there are people who don't need them who have them, and some of the people who do need them use them whenever they feel like going shopping rather than only for official government business. Cars displaying sirens have been involved in fatal accidents because to get to their important business they drive up the wrong side of the road and speed like crazy. Naturally they are not prosecuted for these accidents, which has tended to annoy normal people. So nowadays when everyone has to stop to let one of these VIPs through you can hear people beeping their horns and remarking sarcastically about the "servants of the people" who are zooming by. It must be super-annoying for Muscovites, but I love these types of comments, because it sounds so much like something people would say in Britain about our MPs, and I like to think that British people and Russian people have an awful lot in common.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Moscow Metro

The Moscow metro is the most beautiful underground system I have ever seen (which actually isn't saying much, but just pretend it is). You can tell how impressive people find it because many of the videos about it on YouTube are set to soaring, dramatic music (think 2001 Space Odyssey type stuff). I don't know if YouTube music is generally an accurate guide to reality, but in this case it definitely is.

Every station is unique, and they encompass a wide range of different artistic styles. That's the most pretentious I'm going to sound, because I know precisely nothing about art. But the point is that there really is art in the stations - a couple of years ago when the BBC made a programme about the history of Russian art, the presenter lay down on the floor of the Moscow metro to look at the mosaics in the ceiling. In general, to my untrained eyes, they have a lot of differently shaped light fittings, and a lot of mosaics and stained glass. For some reason they remind me of ancient Rome, possibly because I can't separate mosaics from Rome in my head, and possibly because Rome was another place where people lived in very cramped and none-too-nice apartments, but had some incredible public spaces.

So here, without further ado, is the a video of some of the stations. Whoever made it missed out most of the stations in the interests of time (both your time watching it, and, I imagine, his/her time traipsing round all the stations at the crack of dawn to get pictures when hardly anyone is there), but it gives you an idea:

I know what you're thinking - how do they keep the floors so shiny? The answer is, unsurprisingly, lots of polishing - very often you will see people sweeping or polishing the floors with those little machines that look like lawnmowers you sit on. And if you don't see them they will run you over, so it's best to keep a look out.

This isn't everything. Not content with beating the rest of the world in the beauty stakes, the Russians have also beaten everyone else in the how-frequently-trains-arrive stakes, and the price stakes. You know those displays on the Underground in London that tell you how long until the next train arrives (the ones that seem to think one minute lasts for five)? Well they don't need them here because you never have to wait that long for a train. The longest I have ever waited was three minutes. And the cost for my unlimited monthly pass? Around £7.50 (less than $12). Compare that with £78.40 for a student monthly Oyster pass. Considering Moscow is supposed to be one of the most expensive cities in the world (and the price of food here really is extortionate), I have no idea how they manage it.

[A lot of people seem to think this is still too much to pay. If you don't feel like paying, you can walk through the ticket gates, which will play a short tune that is also used by ice-cream vans in the UK, and then shut themselves. However, since the barrier is only knee high, you can jump over it no problem. If you are unlucky, the lady whose job it is to stop people doing this will blow a whistle, but movement is absolutely out of the question.] 

The only problem with the metro is getting down to it. For this, you need to open two sets of doors. You can see how the design process went - it's cold here and the stations are heated: we need doors. Ninety-nine percent of people are incapable of shutting doors: the doors must shut automatically. Every second the doors stay open we lose warmth and have to pay more for heating: the doors must shut as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they tried to reduce t, the time the doors stay open, to zero, and to do this used some very heavy doors on some very tightly-wound springs. The result is a death trap. People here nearly always hold open the door for the next person, because if they don't it will smack the poor guy in the face as it accelerates backwards. You could knock someone out like this. If you are behind a very rude person who doesn't hold the door open, on no account try to catch the door - your arm may be wrenched out of its socket. Instead you need to treat it like obstacle course. Wait for it to swing back, run through afterwards. By now the rude person will have gone through the next set of doors. Wait for these to swing back too, and run through. If the door is shut and you need to open it, it is best to take a couple of steps back and ram it with your shoulder, as though you are trying to break down a door in a film. Standing next to it and pushing will just make you look like a fool. So, perhaps not ideal, but since the designers were right about people never shutting doors, it's difficult to see what else they could have done.

The authorities are still expanding the Metro - recently they announced five new stations to be opened by 2015, which would bring the total to 190. It is the world's second most-heavily-used rapid transit system after the Tokyo subway, carrying an average of 6.6 million people a day (2009 figure), versus around 2.9 million a day for the London Underground (2009) and 4.4 million in New York (2010). Plus it has a 99.96% timetable fulfillment, which is really throwing down the gauntlet, considering that in 2006 the average Metropolitan line commuter wasted 3 days, 10 hours and 25 minutes due to delays. Furthermore, if you are going to be delayed, wouldn't you rather be delayed in somewhere that looks like a palace?