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What is Wrong with the Transport Policy of Nur-Sultan?

«The transport policy of the capital of Kazakhstan should be implemented and improved comprehensively, taking into account the environmental factor, reducing traffic congestion with a focus on the flow from the outskirts and nearby villages to Nur-Sultan», – says analyst Anuar Temirov in his article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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Impacts on the city’s transport network is increasing every year due to internal migration from other regions to Nur-Sultan. Photo: Sputnik / Bolat Shaikhinov

The fast-growing city of Nur Sultan has achieved impressive success over the 22 years since the transfer of the capital from Almaty. According to a study by the International Strategy Partners Group, the capital of Kazakhstan took first place in the competitiveness rating among 40 cities in Central Asia and the Caucasus in 2018.[1]  However, despite the fact that the young city is becoming more and more attractive to investors, for the capital’s residents themselves, the everyday situation, primarily related to movement within the city is complicated due to a busy transport system, as well as lagging behind the development of the city’s public transport system. Moreover, the factor of deteriorating ecology also plays a key role in the life of a simple Astana citizen. It is worth asking a question: why is the youngest capital in the world facing the problems of the already formed large megacities in the field of transport policy?

Is the architect to blame?

Architect Kisho Kurokawa. Photo: informburo.kz

Architect Kisho Kurokawa presented to the first president of the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a master plan for the new capital of Kazakhstan, which distinguished itself from other projects by an innovative approach in the field of building architecture. However, the famous architect in his economic calculations was based on the realities that took place in Kazakhstan in the 1990s. According to experts, Kurokawa made mistakes in predicting the demographic “boom” that swept the country after overcoming the Asian crisis, due to an increase in oil prices.[2] In this vein, Kisho Kurokawa predicted that by 2010 only 490 thousand inhabitants would live in capital city (Astana back then), and by 2030 this figure would double and reach 800 thousand.[3]

This forecast had an impact on the design and construction of the streets of the capital, which turned out to be very narrow. For example, on the main avenue of Nur-Sultan – Mangilik El, sometimes the number of lanes on one side reaches only two, although the buildings of many ministries and departments of Kazakhstan are located on this street. The population itself, contrary to the forecasts of the Japanese architect, reached the mark of 500 thousand already in 2003, now the population is 1.1 million.

A natural desire for an ordinary resident of Nur-Sultan is the purchase and further operation of a vehicle, due to the fact that the city is the second coldest capital in the world after Mongolian Ulaanbaatar.[4] In this regard, impacts on the city’s transport network is increasing every year due to internal migration from other regions to Nur-Sultan and high birth rates. In the city itself, the number of cars per 1000 inhabitants in 2016 amounted to 340 units, this figure was higher than in such cities as London and Baku.[5] According to official statistics, a total 261.1 thousand cars were registered in the capital during 2018.

Is Dr. Kurokawa to blame for this all? The answer is clearly negative, because even despite the narrow streets of Astana, public transport has not gained popularity as the most convenient means of transportation around the city. Its popularization began relatively recently and continues with the help of projects that are not quite right in terms of mass involvement and attractiveness for residents, which, moreover, were also economically disadvantageous for the capital.

Overhead railway, at the cost of stratospheric rates

During the Soviet period, a very developed network of tram tracks successfully functioned in several cities of Kazakhstan. First of all, the network connected the enterprises with the places of compact residence of workers for the smooth functioning of factories. However, after gaining independence in two large cities of the country – Karaganda and Almaty, the tram depots were closed, and the tracks were dismantled. Moreover, if in the first city this happened back in 1997 due to constant power outages,[6] then in Almaty the decision to eliminate trams in 2015, as President Kasym-Zhomart Tokaev commented on at a meeting on city development, was controversial.[7] It became logical that due to the widespread trend of abandonment of trams in the republic, despite the great demand for transport in European countries, the leadership of Nur-Sultan in 2014 identified the implementation of a more modern project – light rail transport (LRT) as their priority .

The LRT system operates in many large cities of the world, which are “magnets of attraction” for tourists and migrants. In many countries, the implementation of the construction project costed foreign countries not cheap: for example, in Dubai, the final cost amounted to about $ 7.8 billion with a length of 74.6 kilometers and 49 stations.[8] The LRT project in Nur-Sultan is significantly inferior in length to Dubai – 22.5 kilometers (18 stations), and the final cost will be $ 1.5 billion.[9] The daily passenger flow of the overhead railway in Dubai today is about 600 thousand people,[10] in Nur Sultan, the mayor’s office forecasts daily 146 thousand passengers. President Tokayev criticized these forecasts, pointing out that only 2,000 people travel the LRT route daily.[11] This raises the question of the feasibility of such an expensive project and its payback not only in the near future, but also in the long-term perspective.

The initial amount of the project was $ 1.8 billion, however, after numerous scandals and facts of corruption, as a result of which the former head of Astana-LRT, which directly implemented the project, managed to leave the country and was put on the Interpol international wanted list.[12] Much of this money was taken from Chinese loaners, which added an additional burden to the Kazakh budget. Residents of the capital named the erected columns, on which transport routes will be held, as “a monument of Kazakhstan corruption”.

Project “Astana LRT”. Photo: clrt.kz

Even despite the high cost of the project, the key problem is that it is unlikely to solve the transport problems of the capital of Kazakhstan, since it does not connect the main streets with the areas which have the largest population of residents, and also completely ignores many suburbs of the city and nearby satellite towns and villages, in which, with continuing growth in migration to Nur-Sultan, the majority of the population will live.

For example, in Moscow, the future construction of LRT is precisely aimed at solving the transport problem of the cities of the Moscow Region, whose residents travel to the largest city in Russia for work. The length of light rail transport in the capital of Russia will be 246 km. Upon completion of the construction of 22 km of tracks, local authorities are unlikely to intend to continue laying LRT, for example, to the village of Kosshy (located 25 km from Nur-Sultan, the population is 50 thousand), although this will be crucial for unloading traffic.

Expensive “bus breakthrough” of Nur-Sultan

Currently, the main means of public transport In Nur Sultan is the bus. Every day on weekdays this type of transport carries about 712 thousand passengers.[13] Since 2015, the city authorities began to actively introduce new solutions to increase the role of buses in the transport system: new buses were purchased, special Bus Lane lines were allocated, cameras were installed everywhere, warm bus stops, a mobile application for tracking buses was launched and many other things. All these solutions together have significantly improved the functioning of the system. However, quite a lot of budget money was spent, although there were opportunities to reduce cost of the projects.

At the beginning of 2020, 15 electric buses entered the routes of the capital. Photo: Akimat of Nur-Sultan

One of the latest controversial decisions was the purchase approval of 100 electric buses worth $ 38 million. As the akim (mayor) of the capital Altai Kulginov mentioned, the high price of buses is dictated by their environmental friendliness, however, even the Ministry of Ecology cannot give an accurate assessment on how 100 electric buses can help to improve the environmental situation in the city. In 2015, when the first warm bus stop worth $ 36 thousand appeared, at the same time in media there was information that similar bus stops in Russia costed almost 5 times cheaper.[14]

The introduction of innovative ideas for buses continues. In October this year, in several metropolitan buses, the Face Pay system was introduced in pilot mode using cameras from the Chinese company Hikvision, which was charged by reading biometric data from a person.[15] Amid growing anti-Chinese sentiment in society, there is a risk that some residents will stop using public transport, fearing for the leak of their personal data. The government should consider in detail the implementation of such systems, by considering the views of experts and ordinary citizens.

Situation with the environmentally friendly transport

After the capital of Kazakhstan won the right to host the international exhibition EXPO-2017, the theme of which was the role of renewable energy sources, discussions about the transition to a green economy intensified in the country. The corresponding concept to increase the use of “green” energy, which noted the need to create the necessary infrastructure for electric vehicles and gas-fueled vehicles, was adopted back in 2013.[16]

However, since then there has been no mass abandonment of gasoline-powered cars in favor of installing Autogas system (AS) with the further purchase of electric cars. There are several reasons for this: insufficient state support for such types of vehicles with privileges for drivers, a relatively small number of gas stations and a small number of stations for electric vehicles, an inoperative technical inspection system and a small percentage of old cars’ utilization.

Generally, in Kazakhstan, and particularly in Nur-Sultan, electric vehicles have very low chances of crowding out the car market with traditional fuels. Even despite the fact that on November 14 of the current year the first official charging stations for Tesla cars in Central Asia appeared in the capital,[17] in addition to which 50 more “green” gas stations in Nur-Sultan will be opened by Kazakhstani companies,[18] The most realistic development option is the prospect of switching to gas fuel, due to high prices for electric cars. The contribution to the improvement of the environment in Kazakhstan of several hundred electric vehicles in the country is negligible, however, this trend should not be discounted.

“Boom” in the increasing number of electric cars in Kazakhstan has not been observed                 

Regarding the plans for transferring to Autogas system in Nur-Sultan, the question arises of switching public transport to gas, which would be a significant contribution to improving the environmental situation in the city. However, drivers make a choice in favor of gas because of its cheapness compared to gasoline and diesel fuel, and not because there are certain benefits for car owners, such as in the European Union. Taxes on cars using gas fuel in the EU countries are 1.5-2 times lower than on motor vehicles using gasoline and diesel fuel.[19]

In Russia, the program “Development of the gas engine fuel market” is being developed, according to which subsidies will be provided for citizens who express a desire to re-equip their cars by installing Autogas system.[20] A similar program has been operating in China for almost 30 years, thanks to which the number of gas-fueled vehicles, most of which are trucks, is 10 million.[21] Kazakhstan should take an example from its neighbors and adopt its own strategy to increase gas-powered cars, as a rapidly growing trend will help to significantly solve the environmental issue in many cities of the country, including Nur-Sultan.

The problem of old cars in Nur Sultan also worsens the environment in the city, as technical inspections, according to representatives of the Anti-Corruption Agency, have turned into falsehood and do not fulfill their original functions, except for the increased risk of a corruption. In this regard, there was a proposal to temporarily suspend the inspection procedure following the example of Georgia, until effective measures in this area will be developed.[22] In Georgia, the government of Mikheil Saakashvili canceled technical inspection for cars in 2004, but the measure returned already this year. A technical inspection can only be paid by bank transfer, and specific dates are set for its passage by both old and new vehicles. The system of “smart cameras” captures in Georgian cities those cars that do not have a ticket for passing technical inspection. The Georgian experience is clearly useful in the fight against corruption in the field of transport in Kazakhstan.

Conclusions and recommendations

A key conclusion should be drawn from the foregoing: the transport policy of the capital should be implemented and improved comprehensively, taking into account the environmental factor, reducing traffic congestion with an eye on the flow from the outskirts and nearby villages to Nur Sultan, as well as continuing the policy of increasing the role of public transport in the life of citizens of the capital.  In this regard it is necessary to consider the following recommendations:

  • In order to prevent transport collapse from large satellite cities, such as Kosshy, and the outskirts of Nur Sultan, it is worth developing a transport strategy for these areas. At a meeting on the socio-economic development of Almaty with the participation of President Tokayev, the mayor of Almaty Bakytzhan Sagintayev announced that commuter rails would be launched from two large nearby settlements, Talgar and Kaskelen, to Almaty.[23] Such commuter rails from Kossha to Nur Sultan would make a significant contribution to unloading the city’s transport network and reduce the travel time for the residents of the village;
  • Only the improvement of the quality of life in the regions can stop the existing migration flows from other cities of Kazakhstan to the capital, which should be among the key priorities of the Government for the coming years;
  • Due to the international loan commitments taken, the implementation of the LRT project can no longer be stopped, however, in the future transport system reforms and the introduction of new modes of transport in the capital and other cities should be submitted for public discussion. The best option is to introduce the election of akims (mayors) in order to prevent such situation from happening in the future;
  • Improving the environment by encouraging motorists to switch to gas fuel should be made a top priority. For this purpose, the initial step is to develop a strategy for switching to gas fuel, which should be adopted in Nur-Sultan and in other cities;
  • The government should seriously study the implementation of the Georgian experience in improving the technical inspection system for vehicles. However, in the case of Kazakhstan, the process cannot be delayed for a long time, it is necessary to improve the control system in a shorter time frame and to eliminate corruption. Car owners whose vehicles cannot be inspected should be encouraged to utilize old cars and, in this regard, more recycling centers should be built.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

[1] Competitiveness rating of 40 Cities of Central Asia and the Caucasus, International Strategy Partners Group, http://ispg.pro/research-top40-cities.html (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[2] Kurokawa made a mistake while designing Astana – Kazakhstan architect, TengriNews, 07/09/18, https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/kurokava-oshibsya-proektirovanii-astanyi-kazahstanskiy-348628/ (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[3]  The City General Plan of Nur-Sultan, the website of the akimat of the city of Nur-Sultan, http://astana.gov.kz/ru/page/genplan (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[4] The Coldest Capital Cities in sThe World, World Atlas, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-coldest-capital-cities-in-the-world.html (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[5] Tatyana Kovaleva, “According to statistics, in Astana there are more cars per 1000 inhabitants than in London”, Zakon.kz, 07/27/16, https://www.zakon.kz/4808196-po-statistike-v-astane-avtomobilejj- na.html (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[6] Elena Ulyankina, How the trams disappeared, why there were no trolley buses and what is coming up for the buses. Novy Vestnik newspaper, 03/19/13, https://nv.kz/2017/03/19/150273 / (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[7] Shokan Alkhabaev, The elimination of trams was a controversial decision – Tokayev, TengriNews, 10.29.19, https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/likvidatsiya-tramvaev-byila-spornyim-resheniem-tokaev-382753 / (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[8] Krishtina D’Silva, Dubai Metro: Project Information, Tenders, Routes and Updates, Urban Transport News, 09.09.19, https://urbantransportnews.com/dubai-metro-project-information-tenders-routes-and- updates/ (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[9] Meyirim Smayil, The total cost of LRT in Nur Sultan has been mentioned, TengriNews, 07/30/19, https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/nazvana-itogovaya-stoimost-lrt-v-nur-s time-375208 / (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[10] Angel Tesorero, Dubai Metro: 10 years down the metro line, Khaleej Times, 09/07/19, https://www.khaleejtimes.com/uae/dubai/dubai-metro-10-years-down-the-metro-line (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[11] Ainagul Elyubaeva, President on LRT: How are you going to increase passenger traffic by 70 times?, Business Information Center Capital, 07.15.19, https://kapital.kz/economic/79796/prezident-o-lrt-kak-vy -sobirayetes-uvelichit-passazhiropotok-v-70-raz.html (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[12] Diana Abdullaeva, Ex-Head of Astana LRT Talgat Ardan put on the wanted list, Informburo, 07/30/19, https://informburo.kz/novosti/eks-glavu-astana-lrt-talgata-ardana-obyavili-v -rozysk.html (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[13] Briefing on the topic: “Development of public transport in the city of Astana”, Astana LRT website, 12/21/18, http://www.alrt.kz/news/319 (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[14] Zhanar Barlybaeva, In Kazakhstan, heated bus stops are set at times more expensive than in Russia, Zakon.kz, 10.21.15, https://www.zakon.kz/4750306-v-kazakhstane-otaplivaemye-ostanovki.html (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[15] Aigerim Ansaganova, A new biometric format for bus payment was tested in the capital, Kazinform international news agency, 10/17/19, https://www.inform.kz/ru/novyy-biometricheskiy-format-oplaty-proezda-v- avtobusah-protestirovali-v-stolice_a3576388 (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[16] Concept for the transition of the Republic of Kazakhstan to a “green economy”, https://greenkaz.org/images/for_news/pdf/npa/koncepciya-po-perehodu.pdf (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[17] The first Tesla charging stations appeared in Nur-Sultan, Kursiv Weekly, 11/14/19, https://kursiv.kz/news/avto/2019-11/v-nur-sultane-poyavilis-pervye-zaryadnye-stancii-teslav (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[18] Olzhas Ramazanov, Free chanrging stations for electric vehicles will open in Astana and Almaty, InformBuro, 08/29/18, https://informburo.kz/novosti/besplatnye-zapravki-dlya-elektromobiley-otkroyut-v-astane-i-almaty.html (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[19] Sergey Smirnov, In Kazakhstan, the transfer to Autogas system is limited to calls and declarations, InformBuro, 01/11/18, https://informburo.kz/mneniya/sergey-smirnov/v-kazahstane-perevod-transporta-na-gaz-ogranichivaetsya -prizyvami-i-deklaraciyami-.html (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[20] Timur Khasanov, Gas for people: the transfer of private cars to Autogas system will be paid by the state, Izvestia, 03.16.19, https://iz.ru/856654/timur-khasanov/gaz-naroda-perevod-avtomobilei-chastnikov-na-gbo-oplatit-gosudarstvo (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[21] Evgenia Mamonova, Revenue in cube, Rossiyskaya Gazeta – Special issue No. 83 (7841), 04/15/19, https://rg.ru/2019/04/15/gosudarstvo-uvelichivaet-podderzhku-rynka-gazomotornogo-topliva.html (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[22] Diana Abdullaeva, Anti-Corruption Service: Vehicle inspection turned into a falsehood, InformBuro, 07/12/19, https://informburo.kz/novosti/antikorrupcionnaya-sluzhba-tehosmotr-avtomobiley-prevratilsya-v-fikciyu-.html (Date of access: 16.01.2020)

[23] Commuter rails from Talgar and Kaskelena are planned to be launched in Almaty, Khabar 24, 10.29.19, https://24.kz/ru/news/social/item/350988-elektrichki-iz-talgara-i-kaskelena-khotyat-zapustit-v-almaty (Date of access: 16.01.2020)


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