The Politics of Walking in Tbilisi

Walking in Tbilisi is not easy

Tbilisi is largely unwalkable. And walkability is the key to an urban area’s efficient ground transportation. Those of us who have spent any amount of time living in Georgia know that if you fancy a stroll through the streets of Tbilisi, your journey is likely to be fraught with potential dangers and a whole lot of frustration. Tbilisi’s grating traffic, and the head-scratching absence of consistent traffic enforcement can turn the simplest walk into an urban nightmare.

Walkable Communities Inc writes that the cheapest form of transportation is walking. And not only, walkable cities lead to more social interaction, increased physical fitness, diminished crime, and increased wellness. Walkable cities also improve social and economic problems. Studies have also shown that walking-friendly communities lead to happier, healthier lives for the people that live in them.

Cross with care

So what is Tbilisi’s problem when it comes to its walkability?

Let’s make one thing completely clear straight away: pedestrians in Tbilisi are second-class citizens. When it comes to moving around the city, an unsaid hierarchy exists, and pedestrians find themselves at the very bottom of the pyramid. Simply put, cars have the right-of-way in Georgia, and to forget this fact is to willingly put yourself at risk for an untimely death.

Tbilisi motorists drive with little sense of accountability, and by and large, do not take into consideration the movement of pedestrians – especially if that means delaying their journey by even the slightest of margins. They drive fast, are impatient, and have almost no regard for those they share the road with.

To be fair, Tbilisi’s drivers are not solely to blame. The highly-revered patrol police are also complicit in Tbilisi’s walking nightmare. Tbilisi’s patrol police are mind-numbingly unwilling to enforce basic traffic safety laws. In fact, as cars speed down residential streets at breakneck speeds, is not uncommon to see the patrol police sit idly by on the side of the road doing nothing (true story).

This permissive driving culture has led to motorists driving with a sense of impunity, and a level of carelessness that is hard to rival.

My friends and I often wonder: what exactly does one have to do to induce the wrath of the patrol police? Kill someone? And how do we explain what appears a complete indifference of the police to enforce the law?

We have yet to find an answer to this question.

Sidewalks offer little refuge

Remaining on the pavement is one way to minimize the risk of bodily harm, but comes with its own set of unique challenges. Naturally, because of the overabundance of vehicles in Tbilisi, parking spaces are at a premium. You needn’t walk more than a few meters on some city streets before coming across cars protruding into the walkway.

Some cars leave us pedestrians just enough space on the pavement to pass, but often times, cars simply annex the pavement altogether, forcing those on foot to venture out into the roadway in order to continue their journey. This is particular problematic and dangerous for the elderly and those pushing prams with their infants.

In the rare cases where small stretches of pavement are clear for walking, we are still faced with other aggravating obstacles. Sidewalks tend to be treacherous, as the slabs of concrete are often uneven, broken, or have random metal pipes protruding from them. This is to say nothing of the puddles of spit and, at least on my street, the random piles of dog excrement that can be found littering the pavement.

So what does all of this mean for Tbilisi?

Quite a bit.

If we want to live in a social and economic healthy city, we need to increase its walkability. But Tbilisi has a long trek ahead.

Talk of improving the conditions for pedestrians, and talk of moving Tbilisi towards becoming a more walkable city is not enough. The political will needs to exist on behalf of Georgia’s politicians, and civil society, and we the community, need to do more to shape the narrative about Tbilisi’s abominable conditions for pedestrians. Demanding that Tbilisi’s patrol police enforce already established traffic laws would be a good start.


Author: William King