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GOOD NEWS – BAD NEWS – Bucharest Traffic
Ed’l Note: Real estate prices and new car counts are signs of a growing economy. This does not come, however, without stress or need for new infrastructure investment.

Wanted: An Urban Plan For Bucharest
Ziarul Financiar – by Andrew Begg

April 29, 2005. Talk to any savvy real estate agent and you’ll hear how wonderful the property market has been over the last several years, and how it is expected to expand further over the coming years. New buildings are popping up everywhere. Whole suburbs are being thrown together willy-nilly.

While money flows in and growth continues, so do the numbers of cars on the roads. Cars are everywhere. And every year it gets worse, as time passes without anything being done to ease the congestion. The streets snarl with traffic, fraying the nerves of everyone with the misfortune to be stuck in it.

Bucharest’s congestion problems are different from those found in other capital cities such as Budapest, where the problem of congestion has been effectively eased by lining downtown street curbs with rows of vertical steel bars to discourage drivers from parking on the sidewalks.

Or Bangkok, where tens of thousands of vehicles compete with tens of thousands of motorcycles, duk-duks and rickshaws for position, and traffic police wearing facemasks to guard against pollution is a common sight. At least traffic flows there, and laws exist to see that it does. Nor has the traffic problem been diluted by legislation that forces drivers to pay for the privilege of bringing their cars into central areas, as is the case in London.

Bucharest, on the other hand, is a free for all. Drive through the city and you witness thousands of illegally parked cars, left where a space isn’t quite large enough, with the back or front end of the car either parked on the pavement blocking access to pedestrians or jutting out into the road, impeding free access of the road to other cars. This makes walking in the city virtually impossible.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to quantify, firstly, how much collective time is wasted by a car jutting half out into a street, forcing all drivers that pass it to brake, look in the mirror, wait for an oncoming car to pass, and then resume driving, and secondly, how many injuries to passersby and accidents to cars are endured due to cars that are parked halfway into a street? It isn’t surprising that driving brings out the worst in Romanians. Residents of Bangkok laugh about their traffic problems whereas driving here transforms otherwise placid residents into snorting, swearing, gesticulating hooligans.

Try it yourself, and you can see why this is so. You’ll be snaking your way through a city street and come up behind a driver with his engine running while he waits for a colleague to come out of a building. This of course blocks all traffic behind him. The driver behind you starts sounding his horn which encourages you to sound yours too, and the driver in front of you shouts, ‘Only 30 seconds, what’s the hurry?’ as if to say, ‘If my life is unhurried, why shouldn’t yours be too?’ Later, you’ll be in one of two lanes waiting your turn to proceed, when a car will come up beside you, creating a third lane, then another car will come alongside the car next to you, creating a fourth lane. Then another car will steal a place next to the car in the first lane, creating a total of five lanes where there is only room for two.

Drivers make illegal turns across several lanes of oncoming traffic, block the path of trams, and drive the wrong way down one-way streets as if there were no traffic laws at all. It is a common sight to see cars and buses jumping red lights. The greatest irony is that Romanians need to complete thirty hours – yes, thirty – before qualifying to sit a driving test. Just what, pray, do they actually learn?

Sweeping changes are required to ease the city’s congestion problems. But there have been no major projects to confront the congestion problem that only worsens with time. Where are the large-scale projects, such as underground tunnels or flyovers? Where are they? There is currently a tremendous logjam of traffic during working hours on weekdays between Piata Unirii and Piata Victoriei – imagine what effect an underground tunnel connecting the two would have on city congestion.

It is time that Bucharest’s city planners began to get tough with drivers. If the plan for a tunnel is too ambitious or expensive, a line around Bucharest’s central radius could be drawn, with Piata Unirii and Piata Victoriei as its southern and northern points, and perhaps Bucur Obor and Gara de Nord forming its eastern and western boundaries. A token system could be introduced, in which drivers are forced to pay to enter this downtown zone.

The payment should be something people can afford, but just enough to encourage commuters to use alternative forms of transport, or look at the possibility of car pooling (which should not be terribly difficult to organise amongst residents of apartment blocks).

The introduction of wheel clamping illegally parked cars is a worthwhile deterrent, but isn’t anywhere near as widespread for it to be effective. (Nor should the clampers linger and wait for clamped drivers to return to their cars, then offer to unclamp wheels for a vast discount off the original fine, as is the current practice.)

There are car parks, but unimaginative planning sees them occupy spaces which should be made much more of, such as Piata Victoriei or Piata Revolutiei, both of which have great aesthetic potential. Was there talk of above ground car parks recently? That might help, in a minor, short-term way, but it would be far better to discourage cars from entering the city until the streets can properly cope with them.

Bucharest’s population of 2.2 million is served by an infrastructure more appropriate for a medium-sized town. True, the city has experienced growth in recent years at a rate that will most probably continue for the foreseeable future. But growth for its own sake is meaningless. In the same way that a child matures, a city needs to develop as well as grow, and in recent years Bucharest has grown but it hasn’t developed.

The roads may be marginally better than they were, and the numbers of tin boxes on wheels – otherwise known as Dacias – are fewer, but they have merely been replaced by real cars. With local government elections out of the way, Bucharest’s new mayor has a golden opportunity to make a meaningful, lasting impression on the city by attacking the congestion problem head on, before it gets any worse.