Snobbery to blame for Tbilisi's reluctance to use public transport

Op-ed

Detroit, Michigan. It’s a city with a long and proud history. The city is often referred to as the birthplace of techno music (think Juan Atkins, Carl Craig, Eddie Fowlkes, Derrick May, Jeff Mills, and Kevin Saunderson). Detroit is also famous for the Motown sound (The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, and Smokey Robinson). There are contemporary artists that hail from Detroit too (Eminem, Jack White and The White Stripes, Iggy Pop, The Raconteurs, and of course Madonna to name just a few). However, despite Detroit’s musical pedigree and its reputation for exporting some of the world’s most famous musicians, Detroit’s legacy will always be tied to the automobile.

In 1903, Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company. Shortly thereafter, Chrysler and General Motors set up shop, and Detroit would come to be known as the automotive capital of the world. Because of the ‘Big Three’ (Ford, GM and Chrysler) and their interest in selling cars, Detroit would never enjoy a sophisticated public transport system. In fact, Detroit has no metro, no subway – not even a tramway. If you live in the Detroit area, you need a car. And in Detroit, almost everyone has one.

However, things began to change a few years ago. While Detroit is unlikely to ever have a metro or subway on par with those in places like New York City, Moscow or London, it has broken ground on an overland rail called the M-1. The M-1 is a modest project to say the least, and entails a singular track running north and south in downtown Detroit with a total distance of only 3.3 miles. As insignificant as the M-1 may be, young residents of Detroit are thrilled with the initiative, and are in love with the idea that Detroit could someday catch-up to the rest of the modern world when it comes to public transport. However, as enamored as they might be at the thought of ditching their cars, and making their daily trek to work on a shiny new tram, they have a long wait ahead of them. There is very little political will for this, and even less available finances to fund such a massive infrastructure project. So those living in Detroit will have to get used to the idea that going carless is a dream at best – at least for the foreseeable future.  

Right there in front of you

Meanwhile in Tbilisi, residents have a plethora of options to choose from when it comes to ferrying themselves to and from the workplace. Tbilisians are blessed to have an aging but functional metro system, an intricate web of buses and marshrutkas, and of course, cheap taxis at the ready. These kinds of public transport options would make most in Detroit green with envy. However, many Georgians take this fact for granted and even turn their noses up at the idea of riding the metro, or the thought of squeezing onto a bus or marshrutka. Despite having access to such reasonable public transport, many Georgians prefer driving their car, regardless of the high price of petrol and the costs associated with maintaining a vehicle.

This is perplexing from an economic standpoint.

For instance, according to GeoStat, as recently as 2015, per capita monthly income in Georgia’s urban areas was just under 600 GEL per household ($227). In addition, one recent CRRC report showed that as many as 34% of all Tbilisi residents have absolutely no income at all, and another report reveals that 36 percent of Tbilisi residents had actively been searching for a job over the past 4 weeks. Yet, with the preponderance of Mercedes Benz on the roads (black of course), you’d never know that so many Tbilisi residents struggle financially.

How is this possible you might ask?

It starts with the fact that many borrow money from family or friends to pay for these cars. All told, the National Bank of Georgia reports that from 2004-2014, Georgians borrowed over 1.5 billion GEL for transport and communication expenses (this probably accounts for the numerous iPhones and luxury cars you see everywhere). Right-hand drive vehicles are also sold cheaply in Georgia, which enables many to own a car who would otherwise not have the financial wherewithal to do so.

Estimates vary, but some say that each family in Tbilisi owns on average, at least two cars. That's a whole lot of cars. This presents a serious problem, as Tbilisi is an old, compact city, full of narrow streets. The city’s roads were never meant to accommodate the number of vehicles that exist today. And despite the ever-growing traffic nightmares that are part of everyday life, a large segment of society stubbornly insists on driving.

Snobbery knows no boundaries

There is no statistical data to prove it, but it is apparent that many Tbilisi residents that own cars would rather die than be caught dead using public transport. This general distaste for using public transport is undoubtedly rooted in class issues. There is a palpable attitude among society that makes it clear that the car-owning population looks at public transport as something for the lower-class or as something beneath them. Despite Georgia’s high poverty indicators, for many citizens, status and owning material items (a Mercedes, iPhones etc.) is a priority, and often takes precedence over other more important quality-of-life issues such as purchasing food, repairing the flat, or even paying for higher education.

Literature that documents post-Communist consumer attitudes and explains why so many within the post-Soviet space are so pre-occupied with status issues probably exists, but that will have to wait for another day. Meanwhile, as the government shells-out millions of lari to pay for shiny new, energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly buses, and starts to promote public transport as a viable, responsible means of travel, the car-owning segment of the population refuses to budge.

Each day, more and more, second-hand, right-sided steering vehicles clutter the roadways. Owners everywhere, from Vake to Nakhalovka, are getting in on the driving action, creating more chaos on the roadways. In the end, the only solution is for car owners to come down off their pseudo-elitist pedestals and get with the program. They need to understand that nobody is fooled by their right-hand drive black Mercedes, nor is anyone fooled by their silly need to feel self-important by way of owning second-hand material goods. In fact, there is a certain amount of self-righteous entitlement that permeates some segments of Georgian society, and it isn't only the well-off that are guilty. It's time they stop taking the country's functional public transport for granted, and appreciate what many others don't have. I know about a million people in metro Detroit that would kill for the kind of public transport that Tbilisi is blessed to have right at its fingertips.    

Whether it’s art, culture, business or travel, to stay abreast of all things Georgia, tune-in to Discover Georgia every Sunday at 5pm on radio JAKO FM.



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