Tbilisi – lots for the new mayor to do

Tbilisi is a lovely, fascinating city, with its mix of cultures, cuisines and architecture, but it is also horribly congested and polluted, due above all to its population’s addiction to cheap and filthy second-hand cars, imported from Europe and Japan (many of them are right-hand-drive, which given the urgency of every Georgian driver’s need to overtake is also very dangerous). I wrote an open letter to the mayor in the pages of Georgia Today on my last visit, three years ago, and the city’s problems have only got worse since then. So I’ve written a new one (below).

Georgia held local elections on Saturday (21 October 2017), for mayors and councils, and Tbilisi elected a new mayor (the old one went off to be ambassador to Germany). The new mayor is Kakha Kaladze, who was captain of Georgia’s soccer team for many years and a key player for AC Milan. Since retiring he has been a leading figure in the Georgian Dream coalition, which was set up with the specific aim of removing the barnstorming and increasingly authoritarian president Mikheil Saakashvili from power. It was led and funded by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was prime minister for a year before handing over the office but keeping the power behind the scenes. It’s a strange situation for a country to be in. Kaladze impressed as deputy prime minister and energy minister, I’m told, working hard to master an unfamiliar brief, until resigning in July 2017 to campaign for mayor.

I keep hearing the same old complaint here that ‘our politicians are all useless, they never do anything for us’ – and it’s true, they’re not producing any of Saakashvili’s grandstanding projects, but it’s quite wrong to say that the government is doing nothing – in a month of travelling around the country I’ve seen roads being built and paved, railway tunnels being excavated, gas supplies being brought to more villages, and museums and theatres closed for major refurbishments. Of course, what people really want is a massive boost to the economy and some serious job creation – and tourism is booming, with guesthouses and hotels bursting at the seams this summer and many more being built. In foreign policy, the government has managed to keep a balance between looking west and not annoying Russia. So what more do people want from their government? I was fascinated to see that the Czechs have also this week elected the billionaire oligarch Andrej Babis to lead their government. Is this all part of the same rebellious phenomenon which led to Brexit and Trump? But in fact the Georgian Dream, having comprehensively outspent the other parties, managed to win just over 50% of the vote in most cities, conveniently avoiding the need for run-off elections.

Anyway, here’s the article (also – with a couple of minor cuts – on the Georgia Today website) – I’ve added a few photos here :

 

Dear Mayor Kaladze, congratulations on your election and the best of luck in your new job. Now it’s time to get to work! I am the author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia and I am currently in Georgia researching the 6th edition of this book. Three years ago I wrote your predecessor, Davit Narmania, an open letter in this newspaper pointing out various problems with Tbilisi’s streets and its transport system and suggesting some ways to tackle them. Very little has been done since then, and the fundamental problem, the addiction of the Tbiliselebis to their cars, has clearly got worse.

There are various reasons for this, but one is that there is absolutely no real enforcement of parking restrictions and other traffic laws – people leave their vehicles wherever they want, on footways, in the middle of roadworks, blocking disabled access points. This is illegal, and in June 2016 your predecessor promised to clear the pavements/sidewalks of parked cars by September of that year – you’ll have noticed that this did not happen. It is simply a matter of enforcement – we know that the Georgian police can be reformed more or less overnight, and they have recently managed to crack down effectively on drinking and driving. I think it’s time to do it again – instead of driving around with loudhailers telling stopped drivers to move on, they should enforce laws against using phones while driving, not wearing seatbelts (sitting on the lapbelt does not count), red-light jumping and speeding – and above all ticket, clamp or tow cars that are parked on the footways and sidewalks. The points-based driving licence is a good start, but only if the police actually take an interest in these offences. And while you’re at it, tell them not to drive around with their emergency lights flashing – otherwise what have you got when it’s a real emergency? As in so many cases, Georgia needs to look at basic standard practice in the countries to the west. Somewhere like, oh, maybe Milano.

The problem, of course, is not just traffic congestion, the fact that it takes so long to get anywhere and then there’s nowhere to park when you get there, it’s also that it’s almost impossible to cycle in Tbilisi or to go out in a wheelchair, and it’s also the fact that the city’s air is foul and dangerous. Georgia has become a repository for Europe’s crappiest worn-out cars – half of the cars in Tbilisi are apparently over 20 years old, and every day another 170 cars enter Georgia, 130 of which are over ten years old. Naturally these are filthy – and as I’m sure you know, an International Energy Agency study identified Georgia as having the world’s highest mortality rate due to air pollution (household and outdoor) in 2012. I was astonished to hear that air pollution is checked at just three sites in Tbilisi, and not 24 hours a day (and that the government roadworthiness test was actually voluntary for over ten years). At least the government is finally acting to restrict the imports of right-hand-drive cars, which are obviously accidents waiting to happen.

The absence of an effective city planning system also creates huge problems – not just the aesthetic impact of out-of-place tower blocks suddenly appearing in residential districts, but also the number of vehicles that suddenly have to use those narrow residential streets, and to find parking spaces – not to mention the pollution caused by the construction process. And the city has to stop selling plots of land off for one Lari – whether to Bidzina Ivanishvili or anyone else, it doesn’t matter, but this just feeds the chaos. Roadworks are another disaster area in the city – I couldn’t believe that pedestrians had been forced to walk right on Rustaveli Avenue without any protective

barriers for the years that the Galleria has been under construction! It’s very easy to oblige contractors to install signs and barriers. Again, look at standard practice to the west.

 

In July 2017 your predecessor produced a Green City Action Plan, aiming to control congestion and construction, to improve bus services (including continuing to replace the old yellow buses with blue ones fuelled by compressed natural gas, as well as introducing bus lanes and bus-priority traffic lights), and to produce a cycling strategy. I live in Cambridge, where over a quarter of the population cycles to work, and this is not unusual across Western Europe. Obviously the kilometre-long cycle track on Pekini Avenue has attracted some derision, with people asking how on earth they’re meant to get to it, but do please stick with it! Yes, a cycling strategy has to be about getting people from door to door, on safe roads throughout, but it’s also important to have some visible headline projects to spread the message. But why is there no indication whether cycling is permitted in the contraflow bus lane on Davit Agmashenebelis? Why is there no cycle route through Rikhe Park, or behind the Public Service Hall – and indeed why can’t we have a riverside route the whole length of the city? Having double three-lane highways on either side of the Mtkvari just feeds the city’s car addiction.

But the first and simplest thing to do is to install cycle parking across the city (but especially at schools and universities) – and proper Sheffield Stands, please, not those thin things we see in a few places now that don’t actually support a bike.

In my letter of three years ago, I asked why so many buses terminated at Baratashvilis Street – couldn’t they be linked up to allow longer more useful journeys that people are currently using cars for? Likewise for the routes terminating at Orbeliani Square – link them up! Keep them moving! But alas, I see nothing has changed – I was at Ortachala the other day, wanting to go to Chugureti – but every single bus was going to Baratashvilis Street. Luckily I was able to change on the embankment to route 31, going to Station Square. And where did it go? To Baratashvilis Street! And then the whole length of Rustaveli, and not to the Marjanishvilis Bridge but all the way to the Circus and Tamar Mepe – so I had quite a walk back to where I wanted to be. I know the ticket inspectors like to do all their checks at Baratashvilis St, but that’s really no reason for all the buses to go there.

At least the airport bus (route 37) is now operated by the bigger new blue buses, a huge help to all the people just trying to get from Rustaveli to Avlabari without waiting at Baratashvilis St. Speaking of the airport, the train is utterly pointless at the moment (I was the only passenger going all the way when I tried it out) – to be any use it has to run hourly (calling at Samgori and Didube for metro and marshrutka connections) to say Gori. If you were really ambitious you could look for a Park-and-Ride site near Mtskheta.

I also mentioned Galaction Tabidze as an example of how NOT to do pedestrianisation – the recently pedestrianised east end of Davit Agmashenebelis is a far better piece of work, so could you please now go back to Tabidze and fix it?

 

 

 

 

 

And I haven’t even mentioned rubbish and recycling! You have lots to do, Mayor Kaladze – good luck!

 

Tod and Heb

You may already be aware that Hebden Bridge is the Totnes of the North (I mean the North of England), with its organic veg shops, its organic reiki practitioners, its organic… well, a bit like Glastonbury but without the crystals. You may not be aware that Todmorden is the new Hebden Bridge, now that property in Hebden Bridge has become relatively unaffordable – after the cotton mills closed in the 1970s they were originally squatted by artists and hippies but now they’ve been converted to cool lofts for media types commuting to Manchester. Todmorden is just four miles up Calderdale, one stop closer to Manchester by train or a pleasant cycle ride along the Rochdale Canal. As with Hebden Bridge, it has gritty industrial buildings, lots of independent shops, an independent bookshop (there aren’t many of those left these days, thanks to Amazon, so to have two towns so close each with its own bookshop is amazing); in fact there are very few chain shops at all apart from the Boots pharmacy.

Both benefit from remarkably good public transport services, with pretty frequent trains on the Manchester-Halifax-Leeds axis, and buses that reach the smallest hamlets, it seems, as well as running constantly up and down the Calder Valley. And they both have tourist information centres too, the Hebden Bridge one still professionally run, the Todmorden one run by volunteers and supported by its Friends, who pay £10 or more a year to keep it going.

Even though Hebden Bridge is in the Rough Guide to Yorkshire and Todmorden isn’t, Todmorden is not necessarily second-best, a pale copy of Hebden Bridge – it was for instance the birthplace in 2007 of Incredible Edible, now a global network of groups building communities through growing and talking about food. It all started with runner beans planted secretly outside a disused health centre, and vegetable plots with Help Yourself signs. Now commuters pick herbs at the railway station as they head home, there are vegetable gardens along the canal and outside the police station – and the police report that vandalism is down. There’s even a fish farm at a village school. One crucial idea was the community growing licence dreamed up by the council’s director of communities – now people can apply for a licence to plant on council land and as if by magic the council has less waste ground to care for.

Remarkably, there are two excellent vegetarian cafés immediately next to each other in the centre of Todmorden, the Old Co-op and the (slightly better, it seems) Káva. I’m also hearing good things about The White Rabbit, a Modern British restaurant with vegan choices and vegetarian tasting menus. However Todmorden doesn’t seem to have any particularly good pubs (the Queen Hotel and Wetherspoons’ White Hart are decent enough), and you have to go to Hebden Bridge to find West Yorkshire’s first pub co-op, the Fox and Goose, on Heptonstall Road, and Calan’s micro-pub (closed Tuesdays) in the central pedestrian zone.

Hebden Bridge also does better in the cultural stakes, with its Picture House (since 1921; cash only, no booking), the Little Theatre, the Trades Club and the Hippodrome (rechristened the Hipper Drome, and home to the Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival and similarly metropolitan entertainments); there are lots of festivals too.

Stoodley Pike monument (1815, to mark the end of the Napoleonic Wars)

I visited with my friend Rob (who was with me cycling in Taiwan; he’s blogged about Hebden Bridge too), and we stayed at Mankinholes youth hostel, which is up a hill to the south, closer to Todmorden but easily reached from Hebden Bridge. It’s a good base for walking, with Stoodley Pike and the Pennine Way just above, but we used it as a base for cycling, with some very pleasant loop routes over to Burnley or down to Halifax. There’s plenty of information elsewhere (including GPS trails and so on), so suffice it to say that there’s a great range of rides available, from 70-mile road rides with several big climbs to family pootles along the canal. There’s no wifi at the hostel, but it’s a pleasant stroll from the hostel to the Top Brink pub in Lumbutts for a pint and an online catch-up.

I’ve never seen so much Victorian plumbing (actually stone spillways) to get excess water out of the canal, but it’s definitely needed, as there were serious floods here in 2000, 2012 and 2015, and they’re still making good the damage. Even so, the spillways are an impediment to cycling, requiring regular dismounting.

One nice loop ride was to follow the Rochdale Canal to Littleborough, via the highest broad canal lock in Britain (just 14m below the Huddersfield Narrow Canal’s summit, which is 197m above sea level), then a steady climb to Blackstone Edge Reservoir and then the longest unbroken descent in Britain, 8km or five and a half miles down Cragg Vale to Mytholmroyd. Obviously it’s tempting to charge straight down, but you could also take a one-mile (each way) detour to The Craggs Country Business Park, New Road, home to a branch of Hebden Bridge’s excellent Blazing Saddles bike shop and to Craggies café-deli-butchers, offering great lunches and cakes etc, and also the products of the two breweries that share the business park. Cyclists with lightweight bikes and lycra naturally prefer to ride up Cragg Vale, but that’s too much like hard work for us.

Next time I’ll make a point of getting to the National Trust’s Hardcastle Crags and the information centre/café at Gibson Mill, just north of Hebden Bridge, via Heptonstall, which features frequently on film and TV. I might also take a look at Gaddings Dam, on the moor just above Mankinholes – built in 1833 to supply water to the mills of Lumbutts and long disused, it was rescued in 2001 by a local group determined to preserve Britain’s highest beach – yes, it’s usually freezing, but being shallow it can warm up nicely in high summer.