The Moscow Affair

Russia has madly, passionately (and not a little blindly) fallen in love. And, as with any love affair worth its salt, this one will have its fair share of consequences when the honeymoon ends. 

The object of Russia’s affection? The good, old-fashioned automobile.

It started fast and has only gotten faster. In 2005, Russia’s auto industry grew 14%; in 2006, 36%; and, in 2007, a whopping 67% - an exponential growth that attracted foreign investors, particularly after 2009, when the country welcomed companies like GM & Ford with open arms. Today, the ninth largest economy in the world is the seventh-largest car market, positioned to surpass Germany as the largest in Europe by 2014.

Nowhere is this love affair more evident, more woven into the city itself, than in Moscow. The city has a reputation (perhaps rivaled only by Beijing’s) for traffic, pollution, and downright hostility to pedestrians. And, ironically, because of its epic congestion, the city continues to expand its highways and parking spaces.

We’ve heard that story before, and we know how it ends - for that matter, so does Moscow. But passion, by nature, is blind - and stopping a love affair in its tracks is far from easy.

A typical street in the 1920s, shared by both people and cars. Image via

Before I tackle Russia’s love affair, let’s start somewhere a bit more familiar.

There’s a common narrative of the American Dream - a dream of prosperity and freedom, of a car to roam the roads and a house of your own to come home to. And so it’s very easy to think that the car has, since its inception, been integral to our national character, a natural piece of the American pie.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As Peter Norton, the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the Motor City, points out: “If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say cars. That’s practically the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago.”

When the automobile was first introduced to America, streets were seen for walking - or running or selling or any myriad of uses - and the car was seen as a downright menace. In the 1920s, car accidents killed more than 200,000 people; in 1925, cars and trucks killed about 7,000 children. Newspapers ran political cartoons that showed Grim Reapers behind the wheel.

Courtesy of Peter Norton, via
Courtesy of New York Times, Nov 23, 1924. Via

And, when you think about it, the car continues to be exceedingly dangerous today. According to a 2009 report by the World Health Organization, the car kills more people daily than Aids, TB or Malaria. In 2004, it was the leading cause of death for 15-29 year olds and the second for 5-14 year olds.

So what happened? Why do we think of cars as so natural, rather than as death machines?

The answer goes back to the 20s, when the AAA and other auto clubs began financing safety education programs to teach kids that “streets are for cars, not for kids.” When the city of Cincinnati attempted to ban cars from the streets in 1923, auto clubs banned together, sending letters to drivers, calling the ban “backwards,” un-American, practically Chinese (the ban didn’t pass).

But, more significantly, car companies consolidated to launch an aggressive marketing campaign and change the car’s image, shifting the onus of responsibility from the driver to the pedestrian. They even coined a new term: “Jay Walking.” And, most importantly, they lobbied to make “jay walking” illegal, giving a legal priority to cars over pedestrians. Even today, drivers are seldom held accountable for deaths incurred while driving (unless under the influence, of course).

Courtesy of Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Poster illustrated by Isadore Posoff, 1937. Via

Add in the subsequent prosperity of the growing middle class post-World War II; the explosion of the American auto industry; and the creation of auto-centric suburbias, and it’s easy to see how Americans began to believe that they had always loved the automobile, that it had always been a part of the American way of life. 

With all the necessary pieces of the romance put in place, Americans fell in love.

A strikingly similar fate has struck Russia, although a few decades displaced. Post-Soviet Russia has only had the automobile for so many decades; the presence of the auto-industry, particularly foreign companies, has exploded; moreover, its middle class is growing at a rate that has never been seen.

To our American eyes, it may seem only natural that Russians would put those newly earned resources towards an automobile; however - as my previous discussion attempted to establish - there’s nothing “natural” about it. And perhaps, it's not inevitable either (more on that later).

Russia’s cities, like America’s, have developed to cater to the driver, not the pedestrian. This is no more evident than in Moscow. And despite the city’s impressive and expansive Metro, one of the best in the world in fact, Moscow’s public transport just can’t meet demand. About two thirds of jobs in Moscow are in the city center, and yet two thirds of Moscow’s population live outside it, and must commute daily. Sidewalks are small, public space is minimal, cars park wherever they can.

And so, Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, decided to do something about it.

In July of 2012, in an effort to relieve the congestion coming into and out of its city center, Moscow took the radical decision to add 1,440 square kilometers (of what was formally suburbia) to the city, more than doubling the city’s size. The government plans to move about 40,000 government officials to this new federal district, and convert the existing offices in the city center to hotels and apartments.

Courtesy of

The plan certainly seems counter-intuitive to the popular urban planning theories of today. Could the answer for Moscow, already one of the largest cities in the world, really be to make it bigger? Isn’t the best course of action always to put strict limits in place, and to work on intensifying the life within those strict borders? Add in the fact that the plan widens Moscow’s existing highway from 8 to 10 lanes, as well as builds two new highways, and it would be easy to conclude that Moscow’s new expansion is merely an ill-fated justification for auto-centric sprawl.

Cars on one of Moscow's ring-roads. Image via

But not so fast. The masterplan is far more complex than that - and so is the situation in Moscow. Although the leafy, car-accessible federal district has garnered much of the attention, the masterplan also encompasses infrastructure improvements (transportation hubs’ capacities will be increased by 80%, and an inner-city water transportation system will be potentially developed).

More importantly, Moscow’s mayor has also used the masterplan as an excuse to jumpstart long over-due changes in Moscow’s city center, setting aside one billion rubles ($32 million) for the projects. More importantly, he’s recognized that the best way to go about these projects is to activate the citizens.

As The Economist explains: “Many of the same young, educated professionals who took part in last winter’s protests are working, often in cooperation with officials from the city administration, to make Moscow more livable, efficient and—if such a word is possible in Russia’s hulking, imposing capital of as many as 15m people—pleasant.”

With a common goal of “pleasantry,” officials and citizens have put aside their mutual distrust to collaborate on dozens of popular projects, most notably the 2011 renovation of Gorky Park, which The Guardian described as "an urban paradise, a rare spot of verdant tranquility in the midst of Moscow's overcrowded, traffic-clogged streets." The park will also soon be home to a historical arts center, to be renovated by OMA .

Garage Gorky Park - Image Courtesy of OMA

As Sergey Kapkov, the politician who oversaw the renovation, told The Guardian: "All Muscovites have demands – people call them the creative class, oppositionists; I call them new city professionals. These people work in various places, have a stable wage, have travelled a lot and they understand what they want from the city. We're trying to fulfil their demands. [...] We need the city to be human."

Moscow's mayor also invited Jan Gehl, the Dutch architect responsible for “Copenhagen-izing” cities like London and New York (where he introduced 6,000 kilometers of bicycle lanes), to Moscow. Gehl and his associates spent the summer of 2012 working with a local initiative, the White City Project, and students from the Strelka institute, to gather data for a Public Space Public Life study of the city center, analyzing Moscow’s public space, and “diagnosing” the city’s trouble spots in order to formulate a plan for recovery.

Part of the diagnosis is of course Russia’s love affair; as Gehl told The New Yorker, in Moscow,“Freedom from Communism means the freedom to park everywhere.”

Part of the recovery, then, will certainly include limiting parking and expanding pedestrian/bicycle paths. The city has already put in place a pilot program to introduce paid parking in the center, and ban parking on its main avenue, Tverskaya Street. Daria Syuzeva, a Strelka grad who works at MosgortransNIIproekt, a design and engineering institute working with Moscow’s Department of Transport, further informed me that 60 km of streets in the center will become pedestrian zones this summer.

Courtesy of Moscow Department of Transport Press Office

Moreover, the Department of Transport has also launched many initiatives towards improving cycling in the city, including: adding 900 bicycle racks across the city (particularly near transport hubs, schools, and cultural centers); a bike share system that will launch in May; efforts to give greater legal rights to cyclists; all-day cycle events that shut down avenues for cyclists; a pilot education program that will teach cycling safety in schools; a web portal for cyclists; and, a 16km bicycle lane, in the works.

It many not seem like much when you consider the sheer size of Moscow, but as a writer for Gehl’s blog put it: “we’ve learnt that cities need to think big (have a clear and big vision), start small (prototype the change) and scale fast (prototype in a faster and faster way). Changing Moscow is an especially gigantic task which will require many small steps, collective action, over a long period of time.”

There’s no denying that Moscow is certainly thinking big - no matter what one thinks about the expansion, the masterplan is part of a long-term vision to make Moscow more attractive for tourists and more liveable for its people.

Moreover, to play devil’s advocate for a bit, who’s to say that Moscow’s expansion - if it evolves beyond its auto-centricism - couldn’t be the model for a future mega-city, for regeneration on a vast scale? After all, at the core of the plan is the idea of transforming Moscow from a uni-centric to a poly-centric urban model, and, as Enrique Peñalosa recently pointed out in his article for the Urban Land Institute, our future cities will need to depend on the densification and development of our suburban centers.

People walking on Arbat Street, one of the few pedestrian streets in Moscow. Image © Anton Gvozdikov /

Of course, Peñalosa also ideally posits that these new urban/suburban cities must look radically different, with thousands of kilometers of pedestrian greenways accessible by every building. And while Moscow’s 16 kilometers may be a drop in the water, it’s one of many such drops, many urban initiatives popping up across the city, more and more everyday.

And perhaps, for now, that’s the most encouraging sign, especially when you consider that many of the people behind these efforts are members of a middle class who should - supposedly - be buying more and more cars. To me, these collective efforts prove that, Muscovites are more than ready for change in their hostile city, and that - rather than loving their cars - Muscovites are ready to choose to love their streets. With more and more Russians taking to the streets to demand political rights, perhaps now is the time for Muscovites to claim their human rights to walk and cycle and enjoy those very same streets in their daily lives.

All the pieces are in place, it's time for Russians to fall in love, again.

Images of the evening view over the Kremlin, "Where the Roads Meet" of 1920s America, Moscow's ring roads, and of pedestrians on Arbat streetAnton Gvozdikov) via

Images of automobile fatalities, the grim reaper, and "jay walking" via

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "The Moscow Affair" 14 May 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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