Fighting an uphill battle: Tbilisi’s Transit Troubles

Journalist: Giga Beruashvili

Overcrowded and chronically delayed buses. Sluggish traffic. Inefficient commuting routes. An estimated 40 percent of daily trips in the Georgian capital Tbilisi are made via public transportation. But gaps and delays in the system make the daily commute an endless nightmare.

“I leave at 7 am and get home at 10 pm,” explains Tamuna Vatsadze,* a private tutor and German language specialist, who lives in one of Tbilisi’s largest suburbs, Temka. To travel the 16 kilometers from her home to her classes, Tamuna has to take three buses. “It’s quite tiring. I don’t really mind getting up early in the morning; it’s the thought of having to use three different means of transport both to and from that’s dreadful,” she says, adding that before changes to the transportation system, she only had to take one minibus.

Unreliable timetables and overcrowded public transportation means commuting in Tbilisi is a challenging experience.

Tbilisi City Hall decided to upgrade the public transportation system in 2018. While significant changes are notable—including modern buses and bus lanes and an electronic route scheduling program—the impact has been muted for a number of reasons including worsening traffic and incomplete reforms.

One of the biggest changes is the shift in bus routes and minibus lines. “The range of the lines has increased…You can access several different routes from one district and then, once you reach a transferring spot, you can access even more directions,” explains Elene Khundadze, a city planning expert for Tbilisi. In addition, the city has purchased new, 18-meter buses and opened a new metro station. Other metro stations have been renovated and metro carriages are being modernized.  Once the reform is completed, the public transport system’s capacity should increase by 60 percent, according to Khundadze. 

Today, things look different for commuters, however.  

Despite the fact that I live and commute in the central part of the city… I need to use at least two buses.” Keto Mgeladze, a student, notes. “The time on the timetable can often be inaccurate – it could say seven minutes and the bus could take 17 minutes instead… Technically, I could use one bus to get to my destination, but it’s usually so packed, I have to let it go for something less crowded.” 

The average wait time for a bus is 18 minutes, according to a 2022 report by the CEE Bankwatch Network. In the suburbs, the wait can be 25 minutes or more along some bus routes.

Seven minutes on the electronic schedule could turn into 17 minutes due to myriad problems on the road.

City planner Elene Khundadze agrees that the wait times are longer than they should be, in part due to heavy traffic.

“The operational speed of the bus should be around 18-20 Km/hr…This includes the time the bus spends at the bus stops and the traffic lights. In 2016, the average speed was down to 14 km/hr, it went lower after that, because the constant issues on the road are on the rise, so the average speed keeps going down, except for the roads that have bus lanes,” she says. “When you expect the average operation speed to be 20 Km/hr and it’s 10 Km/hr in reality, you’re practically only using half of the carpark. The buses do half of what they’re supposed to do on the streets and these details matter a lot in the long run, because the capacity of the public transport system without these issues is a lot higher.”

Transfer points are hard to miss as they are teeming with both commuters and transportation alike.

Bus lanes, which are typically exclusively for public transportation and emergency services, are already making a difference in some heavy traffic areas like central Kazbegi Avenue, where the lane’s presence has cut down the travel time by half according to the Transportation and Urban Development. But to date there are too few of them (20 according to this map) to make a significant impact on commuters’ lives as the bus lanes aren’t all interconnected in all the city districts yet.

Another issue is the disconnect between types of transportation: buses start later and end earlier than the metro, disrupting people’s travel times.

Bus lanes have been integrated into up to 20 roads and avenues in Tbilisi, although they have had a limited impact to date.

Integrating all of the modes of transport requires syncing the schedules for all types of public transportation, according to Davit Jaiani, who works in the City Hall’s Public Transportation and Urban Development Committee). Dealing with this issue is tricky and potentially expensive, however.  

The number of the shifts would need to be doubled, meaning hiring more people. Operational expenses are already on the rise, so this is a difficult subject,” notes city planner Elene Khundadze.  “Planning a night route is also a very challenging task. So the best thing that we can do at this time is to sync up the current system and put this off for the future.” 

In the meantime, Tbilisi commuters like Tamuna Vatsadze, are trying to make the existing system work. “I try to walk when I’m going somewhere close,” she says.  “It’d be a lot better if they added more transport, so people wouldn’t have so much trouble while commuting with the public transport.”

*The author’s aunt

This article was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Summer-Autumn 2023

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.

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