The FINANCIAL -- Tbilisi’s heavy traffic can strike first time foreign visitors to the city as infuriating and bothersome; and the hazardous driving habits of Georgians can be considered as a stand-alone story all together.
The tourists are also overwhelmed and surprised by a great number of taxis running around the city chaotically. It is difficult to define their exact number but the Municipal Transport Commission is undertaking an effort of counting them. According to some experts’ estimations, the number of privately owned cars could amount to 40 or 60 thousand units. Another surprise awaits Ukrainian tourists when they come across their native “Bogdans”, the brand of Ukrainian buses and trolleybuses moving recklessly on the roads of Georgia. The foreign tourists’ astonishment is soon replaced with anxiety from a general impression of Tbilisi’s urban transport poetically referred to by Lado Vardosanidze, an architect-urbanist from Habitat-Georgia, as “a portrait of chaos”.
Setting a zoom on the capital, we can define the main means of transportation – buses, mini-vans, taxis, a cableway, and of course, the Tbilisi underground. Tbilisi metro and circulating yellow buses are run by the Tbilisi Transport Company, in turn owned and financed by Tbilisi City Hall. All the issues concerning acquisition of new transport units or modernisation works are regulated with the public tenders, as they are the surest way of avoiding corruption and guaranteeing transparency. The latest considerable acquisition of buses dates back to July 2005, when European Bank of Reconstruction and Development lent 3.1 million EUR to the municipal transport company for a purchase of 150 buses. The following year, the government banned the mini-vans from the central avenues. This initiative did not turn out to be successful as it led to passenger overloading: the number of buses, as well as their frequency, was not sufficient enough to satisfy the needs of a dynamic city. The presence of a private Georgian company, Capital Group in the field of Tbilisi’s public transport could partially be explained by that vivid lack of supply. The company currently owns about 2 000 mini-vans bought in 2012 that run on a great number of route lines in Tbilisi. Despite the fare being twice as much, people take mini-vans more often than buses because they offer more comfortable conditions and have a wider area of transport network coverage. However, even these mini-vans do not work in complete accordance with the UN transport convention because they do not meet the requirements for transportation of passengers, for example, in terms of their carrying capacity.
What is more, the unregulated transportation can lead to a confusing situation: the citizens and the visitors of the capital observe several mini-vans and buses arrive at the same time to the designated “bus stops”. This situation highlights another challenge of competition that could arise between different means of urban transportation. In order to mitigate this, the municipal government is working on a city development plan, a legislative act describing development strategies for different sectors and means of transportation.
Along with the mentioned issues, there is a problem of worsening environmental conditions that have become a direct consequence of transport particularities in the capital. The unregulated transport network is a reason to multiplication of private cars on the roads. About 90% of these cars have over 10 years of operating age. Moreover, the operating age of some cars (46%) is above 20 years. This represents an alarming indicator as these old cars produce much more exhaust gases compared to the new cars. Once you learn that there is no automobile production factory in Georgia and the imported second-hand cars are charged with a low duty, you will no longer be astonished that the country has an old car park.
In search of solutions, Tbilisi City Hall has undertaken several measures. It published a tender for acquisition of 175 buses working on a biogas fuel. One of the key criteria for the buses is a correspondence to the European Union Standards for urban buses. The tender is financed with the help of European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. About 17 European and Asian companies have taken part in it. The winner of the tender has been already selected among 3 finalists and the results will be publicly announced by the end of June. Mr. Shalva Ogbaidze, member of Democratic Movement and Transport Commission, assures that in three months the capital will see the first 50 biogas fuelled buses conquer the streets of Tbilisi.
Another tender had been launched this year for Tbilisi Metro and it was won by the Tbilisi Factory of Rolling Stock Reparation. The factory will be in charge of modernisation of 4 subway cars. In addition, according to the Director of the factory, Mr. Giga Dzidzikashvili, this achievement has been followed by yet another victory – they won a tender launched by the Armenian government for Yerevan Metro.
These events have marked a good departing point but there is a real need of a greater scale. Mr. Otar Gelashvili, Dean of the Transport and Machine Building faculty at Tbilisi Technical University, estimates that Georgia should have approximately 1,000 buses to satisfy its needs. The biogas-fuelled buses will substitute the current “Bogdans”. However, 175 buses will not improve the situation considerably, when a much bigger number of transportation means is required in the country. The professor believes the industry is in need of foreign investments rather than loans.
“The government doesn’t have money to finance a tender for a purchase of additional 600 - 700 quality buses, the quantity potentially covering the public transportation need of the entire country” - admits Mr. Gelashvili, “that is why, our authorities should rely on foreign investments”.
The professor was impressed by the electric buses he saw in China. According to him, it is an environmentally friendly solution for the country. The Georgian government fully supports this notion and to demonstrate this, they have established duty free importations on electric cars. Nevertheless, a question lingers: Rather than depend on import, wouldn’t it be better for the government to support the opening of a full-scale/assembly factory producing electric cars in Georgia?
“I do not think that construction of such factory would be the best solution for Georgia. To run an automobile factory, it is important to have reliable suppliers of necessary equipment and spare parts, currently absent in Georgia. Naturally, the owners of an automobile factory would be obliged to import different parts and mechanisms for the car manufacturing, this in turn shall be reflected in a final elevated cost of production” – said the Professor.
Even though a car production in Georgia can be risky, better perspectives are seen for the construction of metro cars. The Director of Tbilisi Factory of Rolling Stock Reparation, Mr. Dzidzikashvili, wants his enterprise to fulfill this role.
“We have all the potential to grasp this opportunity: necessary expertise, workforce and regional leadership. Our factory is unique in the Caucasus region and it is located in a geographically strategic position”, - elaborates the Director - “I believe that construction of metro cars would be a beneficial extension of our activities as there is a clear demand. For example, in 7 years all the rolling stock of Tbilisi Metro will need to be replaced with new metro cars. Cooperation with a foreign company of a great technical expertise could contribute considerably to the fulfilment of our aspirations”.
Taking into consideration these trends, public transport sector shows its sings of dynamism and, in its way, opens new perspectives for foreign companies in Georgia. This dynamism is accompanied by work on legislation improvement. For instance, on the Tbilisi Municipality level, there is a discussion over an imminent need for taxi licensing. Further steps have been taken by national authorities to improve interconnectivity. Even if development of public transport sector cannot keep up with the tempo of works on improvement of road infrastructure, it has been surely progressing from a standstill.