On occasion of the European Mobility Week 2016, a specialized seminar was organized in Minsk dedicated to improvements of the transportation system in accordance with European standards. How to make traveling around the city environmentally friendly, high-speed and comfortable, how to combine different modes of public transportation and how to make city spaces more convenient for the residents: these were some of the questions discussed by representatives of the Belarusian Union of Transport Workers, the Ministry of Transport and Communications of Belarus, Minsk City Committee of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, "Minskhrada", Belarusian National Technical University, "Minsktrans" and "Environmental Transportation Systems", a consulting company. The event was organized with information support from ODB Brussels.
Uladzimir Pryschepau (on the right), Head of the Section of Road Network and Transportation of "Minskhrada", Palina Vardevanyan (on the left), national expert of the UNDP in Belarus, Belarusian Union of Transport Workers
Cars "are invading" the city, but motorists are a "minority" in Minsk
At the moment, there are 320 personal vehicles per every thousand of Minsk residents – and, oddly enough, it is cars and not industrial enterprises in the city that contribute to environmental pollution the most. According to Minsk City Committee of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, cars account for 85% of emissions, while large core city enterprises like Minsk Tractor Works, Minsk Plant of Heating Equipment and all the heat and power stations altogether are responsible for only 15% of all harmful emissions in the capital.
Back in June, by request from "Minskhrada" the "Public opinion" Research laboratory of State Institute for Management and Social Technologies of BSU did a study of Minsk residents' movements around the city. The experts wanted to find out how people get to work and what modes of transport they use to travel around the city in their free time. The study covered 6 thousand people. It showed that more than half of city residents use public transportation to get to work. Also, most Minsk residents move around the city using public transport or on foot during the day. The minority, however unlikely, includes cyclists and... car owners. Even though cars take up most of the space in the streets, for the most part they do not move but are parked. Statistically, an average car moves about for just 1 hour a day.
"Such a strategy, which makes personal vehicle a priority, is unsound, as it goes against the interests of so many road users", thinks Uladzimir Pryschepau, Head of the Section of Road Network and Transportation of "Minskhrada", a design and research municipal unitary enterprise. According to him, Minsk continues the policy of "adapting" the city to car users. In the end, it may make the city a "hostage" of cars. "We wanted to get some numbers, to understand what is the share of each mode of transport in the system. We now have a good idea on the mobility of the working population of Minsk, which comprises 1.2 million people, or 60% of the city residents", adds Uladzimir Pryschepau.
The non-working population of Minsk has a totally different mobility structure: these are school children, the elderly and... the disabled.
Is the airport, the railway system, the underground etc. disabled-friendly?
Traffic inspectors in Minsk monitor parking spaces for the disabled
City public transport is currently "discriminatory" towards people with disabilities, says Siarhei Drazdouski, Head of the Belarusian "Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities".
He travels exclusively by car. In his opinion, the "lack of accessibility" of public transportation, on the one hand, makes wheelchair users use personal vehicles "anywhere and everywhere", which, on the other hand, increases the traffic intensity in the city.
It can be felt not just on the roads but also in the parking lots, where the traffic police and trade centers fight for the rights of people with disabilities.
Siarhei Drazdouski (on the right), Head of the "Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities" (Belarus)
According to Drazdouski, the government ceased their support in providing personal vehicles to the disabled back in 2007. Some time ago, the city authorities organized a "social taxi service" for passengers with limited mobility. However, says Drazdouski, "using a taxi all the time isn't cheap", especially if one has to ride to work or to the place of studies. On the occasion of the European Mobility Week 2016, the "Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities" and volunteers from the "Green Network" conducted an experiment on city mobility and accessibility for people with disabilities:
Experiment: city mobility:
One cannot claim that nothing is done to improve the situation, says Siarhei Drazdouski. The expert admits that quite a lot of money is needed for any reform; for example, in order to replace the fleet of public buses or trams with low-floor units. However, in his opinion, economists are unable to calculate the social effect of these changes.
"Obviously, Berlin metro does not have full accessibility either", says Drazdouski, "but they say it openly: these stations are accessible, so please know what to expect when you are traveling". In his opinion, Minsk residents do not have enough information: public transportation maps have no special symbols to designate accessibility for people with disabilities, which makes planning trips and simply moving around the city difficult.
An older generation Minsk tram
"Belarus now claims to be part of the world trends of equality, solidarity and non-discrimination, which are to be observed in the area of transportation as well", explains Drazdouski. Last year, Belarus acceded to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, certain steps to improve accessibility had been done even before. For example, the National Airport "Minsk" has improved a lot in this regard during the past decade. According to the data of the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities, at least 1 wheelchair user enters Belarus via the airport every day. The airport has become more accessible in terms of architectural solutions, information and services.
Administration of the Belarusian Raiways also understands the issues of mobility, explains Drazdouski. Some stations have become accessible after platforms were raised to the floor level of passenger railway cars. Architectural approach is one of the tools that can be used to resolve the problem, along with other less costly measures, such as organizing services, providing information, etc.
According to Andrei Hladki, Head of the Transportation Development and Licensing Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications of Belarus, issues of accessibility for people with disabilities are "on the radar" and have been addressed in the state programme to create a barrier-free environment.
For whom can transport be accessible and convenient?
However, talking about "accessibility" raises the question of needs of a large group of passengers: parents with prams, people in their third age and even cyclists, who in Europe use city and railway transport for transfer during longer trips, both within cities and between them.
Andrei Hladki, Head of the Transportation Development and Licensing Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications of Belarus
"Such decisions need to be made at the planning and vehicle manufacturing stages", notes Andrei Hladki, Head of the Transportation Development and Licensing Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications of Belarus, adding that they already have relevant experience: special buses with luggage racks were manufactured to launch bus route No. 300 to National Airport "Minsk".
Today, when the volume of passenger traffic is going down, public transportation apparently needs to be more flexible: it is quite possible that innovation in the form of accessible Wi-Fi are coming very shortly (a decree of the Ministry of Communications and Informatization of Belarus, will in theory allow Belarusian Railways passengers to use the service in the near future), and "Minsktrans" is making attempts to provide more information about public transport schedules (the enterprise is now testing a mobile application called "Rational Route", designed to lay out an optimal plan for city transport connections when traveling from point A to point B). At the moment, though, "Minsktrans" is only considering introducing of a time-limited travel passes, and making transfers when traveling around Minsk is expensive and inefficient.
Barriers to optimization of the city and suburban transport include differences in subordination of transportation managing authorities, and the fact that certain modes of transport are developed without making the effort to integrate them within the general transportation network, even though it can result in a very rational system that takes into account optimal connections and allows time-efficient passenger transfers. Administration of the "Capital Transport and Communications" enterprise spoke about this a while ago.
"One of the barriers is the different subordination of departments. The railway system is managed by the ministry, while passenger transportation is communal, it is in communal ownership and is actually subject to the municipality", noted Andrei Hladki, Head of the Transportation Development and Licensing Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications of Belarus.
Not everything is that great with the technical development of Minsk city transportation network either...
The length of tram tracks in Minsk is almost at the level of the 1940s
Not all the modes of transport in Minsk have developed in a balanced way. Speaking at the seminar, Andrei Vargasau, Head of the "Tram Park" ("Minsktrans"), noted that tram traffic in Minsk happens within a small "tram subsystem". In fact, the length of the tram tracks in Minsk is now 52 kilometers, while in 1940s it was 36.7 kilometers.
Moreover, half of the existing trams today are simply not in use: they are idling in the tram park, because the tram tracks are severely underused. This points towards an inefficient use of the rolling stock resources: out of the existing 138 trams, only 70 travel along the city tram tracks every day.
In the meantime, says Andrei Vargasau, European countries have "given a new life" to the age-old tram: this "green" mode of transport is used on the main arteries, and not just within cities but also between different countries (e.g. Poland's "Silesian trams"). More than 400 cities all over the world use trams, but the best example of creating a new philosophy and a new vision for this mode of transport, in the opinion of Vargasau, is the German city of Karlsruhe. Here, he explained, a seemingly ambitions goal was set to resolve transportation issues of the whole region: "Tram is a universal mode of transportation; it is able to travel along tram tracks, suburban lines and inter-city railways, and it can bring together a whole network of cities and towns. This means that, say, a tram can leave the city and travel along the ring railway. Then it transfers through the railway station network to the tracks: the distances between cities are quite small, and so in a couple of minutes it is already traveling in a different tramway infrastructure of the satellite town or a neighbouring city."
Tram stop, Minsk
Having this goal in mind, Siemens developed a universal tram, which can travel both within city lines and on the railway network (taking into account different rail characteristics and voltages). Such a solution is technically possible.
"Trams are not residential area transport", notes Andrei Vargasau, "they are designed to travel on arterial roads, and this determines the transport corridors". In his opinion, city services need to be coordinated "so that 'parochial' interests do not outweigh social interests of the population". Such an understanding has not been reached yet, says Vargasau, so each party in this sphere will try and hog "this patchwork quilt", while providing very weak arguments to defend their position.
Funding for transportation: concession or private investments?
As shown by international practice, transport can be funded from municipal and federal budgets, and "private sources give a lot as well", noted Uladzimir Sasnouski, Board Member of the Belarusian Union of Transport Workers, who spoke at the seminar. However, in his opinion, private investors need to be provided with opportunities to "grow to an appropriate level".
Uladzimir Sasnouski gave the example of Hugo Osula, an Estonian oligarch, who Estonians sometimes call the "bus king": he started his business in the 1990s developing the route taxicab network, and today, he owns the Tallinn Bus Station and can easily purchase a Tallinn–Saint Petersburg train.
However, do municipalities need to rely on such heavyweight investors and "oligarchs", letting them partially own the transportation system? Another option to obtain funding for new rolling stock and find new infrastructural solution is the concession agreement.
Uladzimir Sasnouski, member of the BUTW Board, admitted that a foreign concessioner showed interest to tram network development in Belarus and especially in Minsk in 2002. However, at that time Belarusian legislation was not ready for this type of investment. The Law on Concessions was developed in Belarus only several years ago, entering into force on January 1, 2014.
In his opinion, the pressure on the city budget can be relieved, as some investors are ready to bring their own "buses and trolley buses"; the most important thing is to build good financial relations with them, and for the local authorities to take responsibility.
At the same time, investments lose a lot in efficiency because of the outdated administrative division in the area of transportation management. "The time has come to review this structure, because investments become much less effective when certain people are accountable for Minsk and totally different people – for Minsk region. There is an idea to create mobility centers in local executive committees", adds Uladzimir Sasnouski.
Uladzimir Sasnouski (on the left), Valliantsina Liaonchyk (on the right), Belarusian Union of Transport Workers
Aside from the issues of funding, participants of the Minsk seminar also discussed traffic safety issues, reasonable approaches to resolving local transportation problems, and the participation of Belarusian cities in the European Mobility Week 2016. 19 Belarusian cities took part in the EMW events this year. Incidentally, the international campaign had a record number of participants, with 2416 cities from all over the world taking part. This list included Minsk, which was one of the "golden" participants of the European Mobility Week this year. Administration of the city signed the EMW Charter, thus signing up to further measures to develop sustainable mobility.