April 23, 2013

A View from Almaty

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Although public transport projects, such as a new BRT and a metro extension, are planned, cars dominate Almaty and leave little room for pedestrians.
Although public transport projects, such as a new BRT and a metro extension, are planned, cars dominate Almaty and leave little room for pedestrians.

 

By Michael Kodransky

Once upon a time, Almaty was the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. While it still remains the largest city in the independent Republic of Kazakhstan following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, capital status was ceded to Astana in 1998 to create a new center of government power along the lines of Ankara, Brasilia or Washington DC. More changes followed. Over 1.5 million people live in Almaty (nearly 10% of the country’s population) and these days there are also 450,000 registered vehicles. Motorization is on the rise and with it parking management issues abound.

Like other post-Soviet cities in Central Asia and beyond, such as Ulaan Bataar (Mongolia), Almaty inherited an urban form consisting of superblocks with large setbacks along wide boulevards. Private residential buildings include big open courtyards that offer better pedestrian circulation through districts as official public spaces are limited to the few wide roads. Many of these courtyards were used as green space and children’s playgrounds, but now have been converted into parking spaces. Traffic congestion is crippling and air quality is compromised.

According to the ROM Transportation Engineering group, an Israeli based consulting firm, around 90% of overnight residential parking takes place in private spaces such as these courtyards. Once drivers reach their work destination, this flips to 80% of these same cars parking in public spaces. The situation is further complicated by a lack of obvious distinction between what is public or private space, resulting from a wave of deregulation across the city. Many residential housing complexes have in fact elected to use their precious courtyards as parking.

The mountain peaks of Almaty offer some of the city dwellers respite from the air pollution—80% of which is due to driving—in the valley below. People talk about going up the mountain to breathe fresh air. This has led the wealthier city dwellers to build their homes along the forested slopes, reaching ever further up the mountain and stretching the city limits—where land uses are more singular and the clean air more coveted. At the same time, it is common for residential buildings in the city center to also house makeshift offices or retail. The new residential developments and commuter shed has shifted to one side, while jobs remain on the other. Market forces have brought new travel patterns. For example, school districts used to be linked to where people lived and the quality of education across a city was relatively equal. Now parents must choose between a range of qualities and school costs, as free education is a relic of the past. Those who have moved into the newer, wealthier neighborhoods drive their children to school in the absence of good public transportation.

The Akimat, as the city’s mayor’s office is called, is focusing substantially on improving public transit and getting parking under control. Public parking prices are superbly low by international standards—yet the challenge will be to determine which spaces are truly public and which have been privatized. A new BRT is planned, extension of the metro, electric buses, trams and more. If these proceed as planned, Almaty may become an example of sustainable transport for the region.

Photo Credit: Bram van Ooijen

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