Bucharest battles a ‘crazy amount of traffic’, with no solution in sight
The city’s mayor has scrapped a planned tax designed to reduce the number of cars downtown after a public outcry
Prague/Bucharest — It was 8.30am and Valentin Mihai showed a brave face as he inched his Volkswagen Golf past former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s sprawling palace, the largest building on the planet after the Pentagon.
Bucharest was blanketed in a surprise inch or two of snow, but that didn’t make any difference. “At this hour, with or without the snow, it’s just slow,” said Mihai, an Uber driver. “I don’t have the words to describe it.”
Three decades after his demise, the legacy of Ceausescu’s megalomania is to make Bucharest the most congested capital in the EU for the past three years. The city lags at least a decade behind major European peers in tackling the most pressing issues — traffic and pollution — and nobody seems to know what to do about it. The city’s mayor on Tuesday scrapped a planned tax designed to reduce the number of cars downtown after a public outcry.
Nowhere on the continent had such a brutal, chaotic dictator lording over city planning. That was then swiftly followed by a deep love affair with the automobile. Add in a building boom and influx of people to the nation’s economic dynamo, and you have a city that barely moves for hours of the day.
The weight of cars clogging Bucharest streets each day is robbing every driver of nine days and 11 hours of life per year, equivalent to the time it takes for Romania’s main vehicle exporter to make 15,600 cars. That’s driving up costs for businesses including delivery, courier and taxi services while the bumper-to-bumper lifestyle is damaging health and threatens to deter investment.
The number of respiratory diseases such as asthma alone has tripled in Bucharest during the past five years, especially because of traffic pollution, according to Beatrice Mahler, the manager of the city’s Institute for Pneumology.
Tech giant Ericsson would have a hard time choosing Bucharest again for new offices because of the congestion, according to Dragos Rebegea, the Swedish company’s chief in Romania. “We have colleagues who spend two to three hours a day in traffic,” he told local media. “People should come to work with a positive energy, not after being stuck in traffic.”
The Bucharest municipality plans to spend €518m in 2020 on projects to improve traffic and combat pollution, including maintaining the existing road network and subsidies for public transportation. After buying 400 diesel buses two years ago, it now plans to buy 130 hybrid buses.
There was also a planned levy, dubbed the “Oxygen Tax,” on higher polluting vehicles. It was due to come into force on January 1, but Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea said there was too much opposition after canvassing residents. It would have applied to about 13% of the car owners, who would have to pay as much as $420 a year.
“Apparently we want more polluting cars on the streets,” Firea said. “This public survey had a very clear answer: the citizens reject the idea of restrictions. We aren’t willing to accept a measure that’s been very successful across Europe.”
One critic, Ciprian Ciucu, a member of the Bucharest’s local council and a potential challenger for her job, said earlier public behaviour first needs to change before a tax would work.
“Without urgent solutions, we risk serious health problems,” Ciucu said. “In the longer term, people will up and leave, investors won’t come in anymore and Bucharest will end up as a ghost city.”
From Budapest to Sofia, the most visible influence of communism on getting from A to B are the trams that have always cut through city streets. The most enduring image of Bucharest is a sea of cars, with buses caught up in the bottleneck. The subway’s existing lines only represent 4% of the city’s transportation network and expansion works have been dragging on for 20 years.
Ceausescu was like no other leader in the eastern bloc. His regime was the most repressive and Romania’s economy was crippled by debt. He embarked on huge costly glamour products such as the People’s Palace that dominates Bucharest, with public transportation an afterthought.
The country exported whatever it could to pay debt, leading to brutal shortages and even starvation. People had to wait between five and seven years before getting the trademark Dacia car. Petrol was rationed.
Then came the revolution in 1989 and his execution. Since then, Bucharest’s population has doubled and the number of cars tripled, a status symbol in a country that was deprived of them. PwC reckons the number of cars reached 1.4-million in 2018, about the size of the city’s population. There’s one parking spot for every five cars, according to Uber.
“The car is part of Romanians’ personal brand, it’s a social label,” said Mihaela Rus, president of the PsihoTrafiQ Association of Psychology and Road Safety.
In the meantime, those who make a living on the Bucharest roads aren’t waiting for congestion to get better anytime soon. The country’s largest online retailer, eMag, is among the companies that have resorted to creating their own electronic mapping system that alerts delivery drivers to heavy traffic.
Uber is working on similar technology, gathering its own data points to tackle the challenge of staying on time, said the platform’s local manager, Nicoleta Schroeder.
“There is a crazy amount of cars in Bucharest,” said Schroeder, who said her family has now reduced the number of cars they own from one per person to just one vehicle. “Like everyone, I plan my life around traffic.”
With Andra Timu