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Is Moscow's Cycling Revolution Still on Track?

Cycling is cool right now in the Russian capital, and the city has ambitious plans to expand bike sharing and cycle lanes - a difficult task in the traffic-congested mega city

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This article originally appeared in The Guardian

Watch cyclists weave through skateboarders and sightseers on Krymskaya embankment bike lane on a sunny spring day and it’s hard to picture the space three years ago as a traffic-choked four-lane highway.

Take the footbridge across the water to Bolotny Island and the hipster hangouts clustered round the old Red October chocolate factory, or wander the newly pedestrianised streets north of the Bolshoi theatre, and you could be forgiven for thinking cars no longer ruled the Russian capital.

Cycling is cool right now in Moscow and the ranks of those riding bikes is swelling. This year’s Let’s bike it! parade attracted 23,000 riders – up nearly threefold since it was started three years ago; the city’s fledgling bike share scheme is being expanded for the third year running and the Moscow City Department of Transport has ambitious plans for 700km of bike lanes. Cyclists say things here are definitely changing.

But stray from those few central streets and the atmosphere is not so cycle-friendly. Some of the worst traffic jams in the world have done little to damage Moscow’s cult of the car, and the city’s reputation as a hostile environment for cyclists remains largely intact. The share of journeys made by bike is estimated at 0.04%, compared with 1% in New York, 2% in London or 40% in Amsterdam.

For the majority of Moscow’s 12 million people who live outside the centre, a cycle commute to work would involve negotiating a string of car-choked highways, some with as many as 12 lanes and crossed only by pedestrian underpasses and bridges. Having to repeatedly stop to slog a bike up and down 30 or 40 steps puts off many, and proves impossible for others.

It’s intimidating to watch the heavy traffic from the safety of the sidewalk, let alone trying to compete for road space on a bike, so most Muscovites who do ride a bike for transport rarely leave the pavement. Among cycle activists, the optimism of a few years ago is in danger of turning to dissatisfaction, and some fear an opportunity for change could be slipping away.

Moscow’s Soviet-era multi-lane radial roads were driven right into the very heart of the city: four concentric ringroads – the Boulevard Ring, Garden Ring, Third Ring and MKAD – allow drivers to move from one to another, and there’s another vast new 530km ringroad under construction. Pedestrians were banished to underpasses or overhead walkways so they wouldn’t disrupt the flow (or not) of cars.

Yet Moscow’s drivers waste hundreds of hours a year sitting in traffic jams. TomTom’s annual index rated the city the worst in the world for congestion in 2012 and 2013, and ranked it fourth last year, behind Istanbul, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. Data from drivers using the company’s satellite navigation systems showed average journey times were 50% longer than they would be if traffic was flowing freely – rising to 103% during evening rush hour.

Before the collapse of the USSR in 1991, only a chosen few could afford the luxury of driving. With liberalisation, however, owning a car became a sign of success, and cycling came to be seen as the preserve of the old and the poor. Katya Girshina at the Strelka Institute for media, architecture and design – a pavement cyclist herself – thinks the city’s enduring love for the motor car could be a hangover from Soviet times: “It’s the attraction of private space, to be separate from the crowd … None of us had any private space or property before, and now we’re afraid to lose that.”

Girshina sees far more cyclists now than she did a few years ago – some riding fixies or reconditioned Soviet bikes – but the culture of the car is still strong. “The hipster community are pioneers,” she says. “But many Muscovites remain conservative. There are lots of girls who wouldn’t look at a guy unless he had a car. The kind of people who wouldn’t own a car if they lived in London – young, professional, living near the centre – would own one in Moscow, even if now some of them might also have a bike.”

Cars are responsible for an estimated 93% of the 995m tonnes of pollutants pumped into the Moscow air every year, making it the second dirtiest city in Russia after the northern mining centre of Norilsk. Pollution in 2013 was up 5% on the year before and, until the current western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s car market was on track to overtake Germany’s by 2020 as the largest in Europe.

The catalyst for change came in the unlikely form of Kremlin-backed bureaucrat Sergei Sobyanin. In 2010, when the mayor of 18 years, Yuri Luzhkov, was unceremoniously sacked and accused of nepotism and corruption, his replacement Sobyanin made a commitment to renewing the city’s public spaces. The “hipster culture minister”, Sergei Kapkov, transformed derelict Gorky Park and replaced the Krymskaya embankment’s tarmac with fountains, cafes, art spaces and a bike lane; Sobyanin hired Maxim Litsukov to tackle the city’s traffic problems.

The first bike lane in 2011 was ridiculed as a green-painted obstacle course, frequently blocked by gates and parked cars, but Moscow’s cycle activists could sense change. When Anton Polsky, known by his street artist name Make, crowdsourced the city’s first cycle map, USE/LESS, it got a huge response. And when Vladimir Kumov organised theLet’s Bike It! parade through closed city streets in 2012, more than 8,000 people turned up to show their support for pedal power. Litsukov brought one of the activists, Alexey Mityaev, into the transport department as an adviser and things really began to happen.

Moscow’s 2020 cycle lane masterplan

The city launched its bike share scheme in the summer of 2013 with 550 bikes and 79 stations. The scale may have been small by international standards – there were 63,000 rentals in the first year in Moscow, compared with 1m in first 10 weeks of London – but by the end of this summer it will have grown to 2,700 bikes at 300 locations. The scheme, which is packed away from November to February when theharsh winter and dirty streets discourage all but the hardiest few, now offers better quality Smoove bikes that can be accessed using the same Troika card used to pay for the metro, bus and car parking. Crucially, the Department of Transport says more people are using hire bikes for transport, rather than simply for a pleasant ride in the park: 46% last year, from 18% the year before.

The city has installed more than 3,000 bike racks, introduced parking charges in the centre, and changed the law to allow cyclists to use pedestrian crossings and the city’s few bus lanes. Pavements are a legal grey area. There are now 170km of bike paths – critics say almost all are in parks or along the river – and another 50km are planned for this year, eventually growing to a network of some 700km. Bike share data has been opened up to Google and to the Russian search firm Yandex, both of which are working on incorporating information into their maps; there are more bike signs, and even a counter display at Park Kultury to encourage more cyclists.

A lane of traffic will be taken out to create a bike lane to the north of the centre, following a similar scheme in the south last year, and in 2016 the Department of Transport will start work on the Green Ring, a series of bike lanes connecting existing parks and open space between the Third Ring and MKAD motorways. It’s not popular with many activists but Mityaev says it could allow some cyclists to cross from one slice of Moscow’s pizza pie layout to another in under five minutes, a journey he says might take 15 minutes on the metro, or 25 in a car.

A survey by the Department of Transport last year found the most common problems putting people off cycling were the lack of bike lanes and the perceived danger of riding in the road. Next on the list was the length of the average commute. In an attempt to address that, the city introduced free bike travel on buses and trams (and the metro with a folding bike), and plans to install secure bike storage boxes at suburban train stations later this year: so a commuter could, for example, cycle from home to the station, catch a train to the centre, and use a hire bike for the final leg to work.

This year, a bike lane will be opened along the Boulevard Ring, a chain of picturesque, tree-lined roads developed in the 1820s which form a horseshoe around Moscow’s historic “white city”. The original plan to create space for a raised bike path by taking away a car parking lane has been watered down – replaced with a scheme to reduce the width of car lanes and paint a bike track on the road.

Mityaev admits the original 2011 bike lane was an unmitigated disaster but remains confident that – combined with lower speed limits and re-timed traffic signals favouring cyclists and pedestrians – the scheme is moving Moscow in the right direction: “We’re not going to solve this problem right away because we don’t have the money for it,” he says. “We’re experimenting. Let’s put in a temporary solution – paint, signs, counters and all the other measures – and get some evidence. In order to win the battle you need some working examples.”

Not much of that impresses Let’s Bike It! founder Vladimir Kumov as he takes me on a cycle tour of the best and worst of the city streets. “Parts of the centre are nicer now, but outside the Garden Ring you see a very different Moscow,” he says. “Krymskaya may be working but it’s only one example. I hope the Boulevard Ring will attract some cyclists, but it’s very short, and of course it won’t help most people get to work.”

Kumov was inspired to start the parade in 2012 when an expected 40-minute taxi ride home from the airport took four hours. He didn’t have a budget for advertising, but word spread on social media, and he was stunned when 8,000 cyclists turned up – four times the expected number. For the fourth parade in 2014, the Department of Transport agreed to close the entire Garden Ring in one direction. The latest parade last month followed the same format, and 23,000 cyclists took part.

We venture on to some of the centre’s eight-lane highways and a take slightly hairy ride along a section of the inaptly named Garden Ring, sticking tight to the right-hand side as executive saloons and large 4x4s stream past. Being a Sunday, the traffic is bearable and drivers give me more space than I’m used to in London, but it is fast: the speed limit is 60kph in the centre, and locals tell me there is a 20kph leeway before police would even consider taking action. Cutting the speed limit is top of Kumov’s wish-list, closely followed by a desire to see more bike lanes, “and not ones that start nowhere and lead nowhere”.

Let’s Bike It! activist Vadim Semenovych, who cycles 40km to work and back from his home in outer Moscow, joins us for the ride. “I don’t think it’s so dangerous as long as you are a confident rider and you have some skills,” says the young engineer, who takes me through the Arbatskaya tunnel, one of the most hazardous parts of his commute. There’s not much room for error and I feel it would be an altogether scarier proposition during peak times, but he says he hasn’t had so much as a near miss since he started cycling three years ago.

Keen to get a proper taste of rush hour, I head back out on to the highways the next working day, braving the busy Bolshoy Kamenny bridge, multi-lane Tverskaya Street and the highway south of the Kremlin, which always seems crammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The volume of cars is certainly intimidating and I can feel the polluted air bite at the back of my throat, but I don’t feel in danger so long as I hug the right-hand side and don’t expect drivers entering from side roads to let me have right of way. It’s a different story if you want to turn left, though, or if a multi-lane road filters in from the right: that means a two-minute wait at a pedestrian crossing, or it’s off the bike for a slog down and up the steep steps of an underpass. Even in the centre that happens a lot. During two hours on the bike I see maybe 20 cyclists – only three of them using the main roads.

But even Kumov remains cautiously optimistic that the situation is improving for Moscow cyclists: “The hipsters have been a good thing for cycling, helping to change how people think about bikes. Five years ago, cycling was seen as something for students or those without money. That’s not the case any more.”

He worries, though, that the Department of Transport is too afraid of motorists to take away car lanes and build radial bike paths: “I do think Moscow can become a more bike-friendly city. Now that cycling is trendy it’s a good moment for the Department of Transport to create bike infrastructure – but if they don’t act now, then in two or three years’ time it may well go out of fashion. Moscow needs to take this opportunity while it still can.”

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