A transport revolution in Tbilisi

Davit Jaiani has long been doing something that was once unusual in his home city of Tbilisi, Georgia: taking the bus to work. “I was doing it before and I’m doing it now – the experiences cannot be compared,” says Jaiani, Deputy Head of the Tbilisi Transport and Urban Development Agency. The radical change in the public transport experience is thanks to a major overhaul which began in 2018, primarily focused on creating sustainable mobility.

“This is not just a new transport policy, but Tbilisi’s first ever transport policy,” Jaiani explains. “It’s the first ever strategic, consolidated view on transport and urban mobility generally.”

Fighting growth

Due to the increasing population and car ownership in the city, public transport has become the priority of the reform. “We have statistics from last year that we have every year 7 or 8% growth in car ownership,” Jaiani says. “Unlike in other European countries, the absolute majority of car owners use their car five days per week, minimum.”

The absolute majority of car owners use their car five days per week
— Davit Jaiani
Cars in Tbilisi
Cars in Tbilisi

The city is convinced by data that shows that expanding car infrastructure doesn’t solve traffic issues, but rather contributes to increased demand for private car use. However, private cars are so entrenched in the Georgian psyche, and in the existing transport networks, that creating a shift to public transport requires major exertion. “We had to take very bold and big steps, not only politically but also financially,” Jaianin says.

Suite of reforms

The reform has seen a full fleet of more than 700 buses replaced, metro lines extensively upgraded and the introduction of taxi licensing, as well as a one-card system for all public transport. The reform also includes the addition of bike and bus lanes to major roads.

“We are opening 10 corridors for buses which connect all the main districts throughout Tbilisi, allowing us to serve the city with 100 km of fast and comfortable public transport,” Jaiani says. This has reduced journey times, while also making it easier and more convenient to use public transport.

All the new buses conform to Euro 6 emissions standards, mostly running on concentrated natural gas fuel, as the city does not yet have electric infrastructure for charging. However, Jaiani predicts a 7% increase in the use of public transport in the next ten years, and there are plans to invest in electric buses with on-the-spot charging at bus stops.

New hourly parking rates are now in place, with the aim of introducing paid ticketing for all on-street parking within the next two years. Alongside this, the city has reduced the total amount of parking available by over 4,000 spaces.

There was zero registration or any kind of control of the taxis
— Davit Jaiani

Another huge change has come in the form of taxi licencing. “Previously, there was zero registration or any kind of control of the taxis,” Jaiani confesses. Now taxis are all licenced under two categories: white taxis, which can pick people up off the street, and b-taxis, which can pick people up via taxi apps.

Planning reform

To ensure that public transport is available not just to existing residents, but also in areas of the city that are being newly developed, Tbilisi now requires developers to submit transport plans for new buildings. The city works together with developers to ensure that public transport will be appropriately integrated as new residential areas appear.

Bicycle transport
Bicycle transport

This has all been possible thanks to institutional reform within the city administration. Previously, the city had dealt with transport through its infrastructure department. “They focused on beautification. In a full reversal of this attitude, the new transport policy began thinking about urban mobility in advance, analytically and proactively, and not just painting some roads after they are built,” says Jaiani.

Before, there were two heads, different goals, even conflicts
— Davit Jaiani

Now the Transport Agency and the Urban Development Agency have been merged into one body. “Before, there were two heads, different goals, even conflicts,” Jaiani says. Now the city administration has easier time running a coordinated, uniform policy for urban mobility. This also makes life easier for residents and companies in the city. “When people need licensing, or other things,” explains Jaiani, “they do not need to run between different buildings.”

Carrots not sticks

Jaiani insists that Tbilisi does not want to pressure its people into changing their mobility habits. “We do not want to be that pushy, because what we can see is that the city has not been offering them anything other than using their own cars,” he explains. Previously, getting the bus in the city was an ordeal. It might not arrive, and when it did arrive it might break down in the middle of the road – as he knows from his own experiences.

We do not want to be that pushy
— Davit Jaiani
Tbilisi metro
Tbilisi metro

Rather, the strategy is that an improved service will lead to an increase in use. With dedicated bus lanes and brand new buses, many routes are now three times faster, and far more comfortable and reliable than they once were. Once people see that they are beating the regular traffic on the bus, that is expected to be enough encouragement.

The city does work to improve awareness of the benefits of active and green modes of transport, and participates in the European Mobility Week, a European Commission initiative coordinated by Eurocities to raise awareness about alternatives to the private car.

The same goes for active mobility like walking and cycling. “It’s a real safety issue when you don’t have any bike lanes – when you have done nothing, you cannot make any demands,” Jaiani says. Now that there are separated lanes where cyclists can feel safe, people are more likely to be adventurous and hop on their bikes. “As we provide better services, this is the way that these perceptions, these social restraints which do exist, will be overcome.”

This is just the beginning
— Davit Jaiani

Sweeping as the completed measures have already been, Tbilisi has much more in stock for its people. The city is developing a sustainable urban mobility plan for the next ten-years of evolution in sustainable mobility. “This,” Jaiani says “is just the beginning.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer