Lessons Learned: Moscow Urban Forum, 2019

I knew it would be strange to be in Russia on July 4 for the Moscow Urban Forum. I also thought the country’s capital city was a curious place for a global conference on urbanism given its past. The highly centralized Soviet style of city building focused on the industrial, as opposed to the human scale with urban planning focused on production for state needs. The result is a complicated and challenging city—albeit a stunning, lively one—as it struggles with the transition from a socialist economy to a market one.

It turns out that this is exactly the point of and the reason behind why this particular conference—now in its 9th year—was different from others. The emphasis on Russian cities and other Eastern cities such as Ankara, Kuala Lumpur, and Tel Aviv, has an inherently different feel from discussions about places like Vancouver, Copenhagen, or Curitiba. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin summed up his motivation for his city hosting the event: when the economic strategy was attracting investors in sectors like oil and gas extraction, cities frankly didn’t matter. Today, investors in technology and service sectors care about cities because of the access to workers. Stemming the Russian “brain drain” is a particular preoccupation of officials here. Mayor Sobyanin recognizes that as a global city, Moscow competes with Paris, New York, Tokyo, and Shanghai, not necessarily cities within Russia.

The melding of the economic and livability strategies places a heavy prominence on transportation; a major element of the conference. The Moscow subway is famous for its beauty and cleanliness. It is also truly a marvel for its speed, convenience, and affordability. The head of the city’s transportation department noted that 70 percent of Muscovites use public transit every day and a massive expansion is in the works. All of which stands in sharp contrast to the well-known problems with American systems.

At the same time, however, the roadway network is equally famous for its inhospitality. Global rankings peg its traffic congestion as the worst on the planet and the country’s rate of roadway fatalities is twice that if the United States. Due to the city’s monocentric design, its giant and wide boulevards do little to free up the roadways. Active transportation is growing but still small despite the government’s ambitious My Street program which focuses more on beautifying pedestrian infrastructure than balancing between the human and the vehicle. Moreover, about 2.5 million people that work in Moscow are not city residents with many coming in from outside the region giving rise to a phenomenon I’d never heard before: pendulum migration.

I was asked to speak at one of the closing sessions about a familiar topic: Moscow has trillions of rubles of transportation investment needs and not enough resources. The city is planning several thousand miles of roads, and the subway system will triple in size. So officials are looking for new approaches and are keenly interested in attracting private investment partly to address their fiscal constraints but also to correct mistakes of their top-down past, especially around maintaining existing infrastructure.

Their interest makes sense. The evidence from around the world shows that these arrangements, if designed and implemented correctly, have the potential to improve on infrastructure delivery. However, public/private partnerships are complicated contractual arrangements and, in this way, Russia suffers from the same problem as the United States: there is a constant concern that public entities are ill equipped to consider such deals and fully protect the public. They also need to reconcile the city’s desires for building new transit, canals, and gondolas with private sector interest in such investments.

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