The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


New Moscow or Medvedev's Folly? Going in circles around Moscow's traffic problem

Robert Argenbright tries to make sense of the back-and-forth over New Moscow, the proposal to relocate the federal and city governments to the southwest of the current capital, billed as a solution to the city's worsening traffic congestion, itself a symptom of Moscow's growing wealth.

Cities: Moscow

Topics: Integrated planning, Roads and traffic, National governance, Global cities

Traffic regularly comes to a standstill along MKAD, Moscow’s outer beltway. Photo: Robert Argenbright
In Moscow’s historic centre, automobiles clog narrow streets. Photo: Robert Argenbright
A map showing the new territories annexed to the city of Moscow last year. Image: Robert Argenbright
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Over the past 20 years Russia has substantially left behind the economic autarky that characterised the Soviet Union for greater engagement with the global economy, a major part of which has been Moscow's transition from the model Communist city and headquarters of USSR, Inc. to Russia's gateway to global markets and culture. Whereas 300 years ago Peter the Great abandoned Moscow and built Saint Petersburg as his "window on the west", today Moscow itself has become Russia's window on the world.

Moscow has changed dramatically not just in terms of its role, but also with respect to structure, both social and physical. Former mayor Yurii Luzhkov set himself the task of fostering the emergence of a middle class. He sought to make the capital more "convenient" and "civilised", which largely meant transforming the city to favour an automobile-centred lifestyle. Unfortunately, driving in Moscow today is anything but convenient — the city suffers from some of the worst traffic jams in the world.

In July 2011, citing the need to ease traffic congestion in the city centre, then President Medvedev ordered yet another relocation of the government, this time to a "New Moscow" which would rise to the southwest of the ancient capital. Many bold ideas circulated in the media and an international competition was held to select New Moscow's designers. But the "shape of things to come" depends entirely on crucial decisions that can only be made by current President Putin. Should the government be relocated? If so, should it be consolidated in one place or broken into pieces which would serve as nuclei of regional centres? In either case, where?

Why build a New Moscow?

Although the Russian population grows smaller every year, Moscow, according to the 2010 census, has 11.5 million residents, an increase of 28% since 1989, when the previous census was conducted. The official figure does not include undocumented immigrants, who may number 3 million or more. Today the capital officially holds more people than Russia's next six largest cities combined. Before the annexation of the New Moscow territories, the city's population density approached 11,000 per sq km, which greatly surpassed all the major cities of Europe and North America.

Yet population growth is much less a problem than the ever-increasing number of automobiles. There are over 4 million automobiles in the city today, more than six times the 1991 total. On weekdays about 1 million more cars come in from Moscow Oblast, the Denmark-sized province which envelops the city.

Luzhkov, who ruled the capital as his personal fiefdom from 1992 to 2010, regularly attempted to relieve congestion by launching major road-building projects. First, MKAD (Moskovskaya Kol'tsovaya Avtomobil'naya Doroga), the outer beltway that for the most part marks the Old Moscow's boundary, was completely rebuilt. Then the city constructed the "Third Transport Ring" (TTK — Tret'e Transportnoe Kol'tso) in the built-up area between MKAD and the Garden Ring, which marks off the capital's historic core. Major radial routes were also reconstructed, but not beyond the city limits, due to enmity between the mayor and the oblast's governor.

Each "solution" to the congestion crisis failed in turn, largely because the mayor seemed not to comprehend the sources of demand. For example, his most monumental project, a global business centre, Moskva Siti, is located near TTK just four kilometres west of the Kremlin. Slated to have 250,000 to 300,000 employees, Siti will inevitably add to congestion. But perhaps the lower levels of Luzhkov's government contributed more to the obstruction of traffic flows. Business interests in need of access to the new highways frequently paid local officials to allow them to build their own exit and entry ramps. Such was the lubrication for Luzhkov's "political machine". Lower down the economic hierarchy, retail kiosks popped up on sidewalks along major thoroughfares, attracting customers who blocked lanes when they parked.

Unsurprisingly, the traffic problem worsened every year. Commentators attempt to describe the extent of congestion by calculating how far the area of roadway snarled in jams would extend if it were a single one-lane road. Once they figured it would reach Barcelona. The mayor grew so desperate that he began planning to build roads over high-capacity power lines and railroad tracks, as well as atop buildings.

Luzhkov was removed in September, 2010, ostensibly because of a public disagreement with Medvedev over a highway construction project. Both Medvedev and new Mayor Sergei Sobyanin made it clear that City Hall's top priority was to deal with congestion. Sobyanin immediately began to remove obstacles impeding the flow of traffic and froze construction in the centre to forestall increased demand for parking. He redoubled efforts to improve public transportation, both through the construction of new metro stations and a host of less dramatic efforts to accelerate the flow of surface transport.

Polycentric panacea

Although Sobyanin's efforts gradually began to bear fruit, Medvedev evidently thought that more radical measures should be taken. On 17 June 2011, he announced that the Moscow city limits would be expanded into the oblast and that both city and oblast would be combined in a new federal district. Once the details emerged, it was clear that the plan was breathtaking in its scope. The city's territory expanded to 2.5 times its former size, taking in three relatively small areas to the west and a tract to the southwest that is larger than Old Moscow. Medvedev intended to move both the federal and the city governments into "New Moscow", ie about 75,000 chinovniki (a term for bureaucrats from the tsarist era). The rationale was to convert the vacated government buildings into hotels instead of private offices on the theory that tourists contribute little to traffic congestion. At the same time at least one global business centre would arise somewhere in New Moscow, along with "Russia's Silicon Valley" in Skolkovo.

Officially, "monocentricity" was proclaimed Moscow's fatal flaw. In fact, since 1991 the Moscow region had become increasingly focused on the centre, as people and jobs have shifted from the more remote parts of the oblast to the booming MKAD belt. A solution, or panacea, was found in polycentricity. By splitting the federal and city governments into an unspecified number of "chinovnik towns", the regime intended to nurture the growth of new urban nuclei. Skolkovo, the new business centre(s), and unspecified institutions of research and higher education were to serve the same purpose.

What's the Plan?

In January 2012 the government announced a competition to design New Moscow. A jury consisting of Russian officials and foreign experts selected ten groups to compete. In the summer six public seminars were held to view and discuss the proposed plans. The planners appear to have been given very little direction. In particular, the new location(s) for the government had not been confirmed, although the small town of Kommunarka (with a population of less than 5000) was thought to be the main site.

In September, the results of the competition were announced, yet the situation was hardly clarified. The group headed by Urban Design Associates from the US won with their plan for a "City in a Forest". At the same time, France's Antoine Grumbach et Associés headed the group designated as in charge of the "overall planning of Moscow". What these groups will actually do has not been specified. When the "winners" were announced, the authorities noted that elements from all of the competitors' proposals might find their way into the final plan. Or perhaps nothing from the whole process would be put to use.

The competition's outcome was announced six months after Putin's return to the Presidency. By then much of the momentum behind the New Moscow project had dissipated. In July stories appeared in the media that estimated the cost of infrastructure for the new territory at 1 trillion rubles (over $33 billion). To put that in perspective, the total federal revenue for 2012 was about 12 to 13 trillion rubles, running slightly behind current expenditures.

Prospects for New Moscow

Officially, nothing has been decided; Putin is still ruminating about New Moscow's future and will decide by March. Yet, in an administration that almost never "leaks" information, unnamed high-placed officials have been quoted as saying the government will not be relocated beyond MKAD. Behind-the-scenes resistance by chinovniki and the great cost of the project appear to be the reasons.

Now the administration is said to be completely reconsidering the relocation question. Indications are that Putin is leaning toward the creation of a new government centre "next to the Kremlin" that would consolidate agencies that are now scattered around the capital. The only large open space in the vicinity of the Kremlin is Zaryad'e. The Hotel Rossiya, which dominated the site before its demolition, occupied about 13 hectares. So far, officials have denied that Zaryad'e would be the location of the new government centre. One in fact suggested Poklonnaya Gora, where indeed there is a considerable amount of open space. But that space is part of the war memorial complex, which commemorates victory in World War II. It also contains a memorial church, synagogue, and mosque, so building a government centre here would appear sacrilegious from multiple perspectives. Also, the site is about 8 kilometres from the Kremlin.

Concerning the location of the government, the only certainty is that Putin will make the final decision. It is curious that the main reason for transplanting the government to New Moscow-traffic congestion in the centre-is now downplayed or elided. Yet Moscow's monocentricity has not diminished in the slightest and the construction of a new government complex in the core area of the capital would only exacerbate the condition.

What is to become of the New Moscow territories? The areas west of the city are favoured by wealthy commuters and Skolkovo will probably receive significant federal support. But the huge new chunk stretching 50 to 60 kilometres to the southwest has little going for it. Probably some automobile-based sprawl of residential suburbs will occur along the main roads, especially if they are improved. Other than that, there appears to be little reason for anybody to move there. One is tempted to call it "Medvedev's Folly".


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