By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — No-one who has lived without a car in both Moscow and major western cities can be wholly cynical about the achievements of Soviet society. Whether it's twice-daily Sunday bus services to outlying Sydney suburbs, or the budget-breaking fares on the London Underground, public transport in the western world has long been the target of governments anxious to cut their outlays and car manufacturers out to maximise sales.
Urban transit policies in the USSR at least reflected social needs. The sparse traffic on Moscow streets decades ago prompted many jibes by foreign journalists, but every day millions of people were travelling quickly and conveniently for small-change fares on the city's underground railway, the metro.
Much of the charm of the metro remains. The stations are still clean and safe, and the interval between trains is no more than eight minutes, even late at night. For a standard fare of two roubles, about 30 US cents, you can travel to any point in the system.
But the ways of the west are catching up with Moscow's public transport showpiece. Rush-hour travel on the metro is now a succession of unsolicited whole-body embraces. Changing from one metro line to another often requires standing with hundreds of other people and patiently inching your way toward a single escalator.
Above all, there are now huge built-up tracts in outer Moscow which are nowhere near a metro line. In Soviet times, residents of new urban regions used to grumble about the slowness of the metro in reaching them, but at least it was usually on the way. For today's dwellers on the expanding fringes of Moscow, the approach of the metro has, for all practical purposes, come to a halt.
No government funding
According to public transport planners, the current metro network of 261 kilometres is at least 100 kilometres short of the minimum needed. Big new investments are essential, but fare revenue covers only the metro's running costs.
New construction and re-equipping are supposed to be funded by federal government grants, but in recent years these have been cut to a fraction of the sums required.
In mid-January, the news emerged that new construction work on the Moscow metro had come to a halt; funds promised by the government for the first quarter of 1998 had not materialised. When the money came through, metro construction chief Nikolai Tarararov told reporters, they would be used to do conservation work to ensure that last year's work is not wasted.
The halt to metro construction has a symbolic poignancy for many Muscovites. Even in December 1941, when Nazi forces were only a few kilometres beyond the city limits, the building of the Moscow metro continued. On the ceiling of Novokuznetskaya station, near the city centre, are mosaics that were executed in besieged Leningrad and transported through the fascist blockade.
Symbols, however, are probably not the prime concern of the residents of Mitino, a raw-looking spread of high-rise apartment blocks on Moscow's north-west fringe.
Every hour in the morning peak period, overcrowded buses haul 30,000 Mitino commuters to metro and rail stations inside the Moscow ring road. Promised a metro line (still marked as "under construction" on the maps in every metro carriage), the commuters are realising that they will be waiting indefinitely.
If the federal government lacks money to develop public transport, might funds be found in the Moscow city budget? The regime of Mayor Yury Luzhkov has found the money for a string of grandiose prestige projects, including the US$300 million reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Capitalism, however, does not exist to serve people who cram into municipal buses in order to get to work. It exists to serve those who are driven around in luxury cars with smoked-glass windows. What Russia's new rich need is not affordable, convenient public transport, but quick passage on their own set of wheels.
During the 1990s, the number of vehicles on Moscow streets has tripled. This is not the result of prosperity (though Moscow is far more prosperous than any other Russian city), but of a combination of pent-up demand and increased availability of cars, often cheap used vehicles from the west.
Transport for the rich
The traffic jams in Moscow now rival those of Mexico City, and for the people behind the smoked-glass windows, getting to downtown offices each day has become a tedious ordeal. Accordingly, there is pressure on the city authorities to favour the road system whenever funds are made available for transport.
Alongside conventional plans for new roads and multi-level intersections is a proposal for turning Moscow's inner rail freight ring — once mooted for conversion to rail passenger use — into a highway.
More patently self-serving is a plan to build a 27-kilometre, four-lane highway to a settlement in the Odintsovo region west of Moscow where high-ranking government officials and wealthy "new Russians" have their country houses.
Although the latter plan would involve demolishing several apartment blocks and numerous small private houses, cutting down 236,000 trees and dismantling a passenger rail line, it is reported to have the support of the mayor's office, the regional administration and the federal road service.
Local residents dealt a blow against the scheme last December when they voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to oppose closing the rail line.
Votes, however, are not usually an important consideration in Moscow city politics. In the anterooms of the mayor's office, public transport users are continuing to lose out to the private vehicle lobby.
The future is easy enough to predict. As the need to replace equipment in the public transport system becomes urgent, federal and municipal authorities alike will resist allotting money. To keep the trains and buses running, fares will be raised and off-peak services slashed. Users will be told they have to pay the real cost of the services they receive.
Muscovites who can afford a car will be forced to buy and drive one, reducing public transport revenues and prompting further service cuts and fare increases. The share of municipal finances spent on maintaining and expanding the overburdened road network will spiral upwards.
An expensive, polluting, city-strangling monstrosity will be substituted for an efficient, unobtrusive and relatively cheap system. Only the car firms will benefit.
In short, Moscow seems destined to repeat the experience of many cities in the west where public vision has lost out to private greed.
It would not require any special radicalism for the authorities in the Russian capital to accept the new wisdom of many city planners in the west: that prioritising public transport, even if it has to be subsidised, is the cheap option in the end, and the only civilised one.
But in Moscow, whose rulers lavish money on cathedrals while worshipping the market, public vision is a commodity as rare as eggs and sugar in a Soviet food store.