Sergei Shoigu, the newly appointed governor of the Moscow region, suggested a few weeks ago that Russia move its capital to Siberia.
Shoigu, a native of Tuva, just north of Mongolia, may have been playing to his home audience.
The idea was immediately squelched, and the Moscow regional assembly dutifully approved Shoigu’s appointment to run Russia’s richest region.
I have visited some of the world’s planned capitals. So I can say the idea is a good one.
I first visited Brasilia in 1976 when red dust marked the walls of Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic government buildings. Brasilia was a bold statement by the leaders of a people who had clung to the Atlantic coast for five centuries. By moving the capital 1,200 kilometers into the interior, Brazil’s leaders refocused the nation toward its western frontier. Half a century after the move, Rio de Janeiro has recovered from the loss of its capital status and is far better off without it.
Similarly, the construction of Islamabad in the 1960s drew Pakistan’s focus away from the coast, where the first capital was located, in Karachi. Ditto Abuja. By creating a new capital in Nigeria’s interior, Africa’s largest nation has drawn economic activity out of Lagos, on the coast.
By moving Russia’s federal capital to Novosibirsk, a city on the Trans-Siberian Railway that is now Russia’s third most populous city, Russians would finally take their eastern vocation seriously. A few years ago, China displaced Germany as Russia’s biggest trading partner.
Two other successful capitals were built to defuse unhealthy rivalries among existing big cities.
Washington was established to defuse the rivalry among New York, Philadelphia and Boston. And Canberra was chosen as Australia’s capital to defuse the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. It's a pleasant, livable city where kangaroos actually jump around on the lawns.
By moving its capital to a third city, Russia would lessen the huge imbalance between Moscow, now a virtual city state, and St. Petersburg, the neo-classical planned capital spurned by the Soviets.
Moving Russia's capital to Novosibirsk would have another fringe benefit – about half of federal employees would quit, helping Vladimir Putin meet his stated goal of cutting the federal payroll. Of course, the ones that would quit might be the best ones, the ones with prospects of landing jobs in the private sector.
But the main reason for moving the federal government out of Moscow is the capital's growing traffic paralysis.
With 800,000 new cars hitting the streets of Moscow every year, those city streets are slowly seizing up. Last year, average speeds slowed by 15 percent inside the Garden Ring, which defines the city center.
Today, the average Muscovite spends three hours commuting to and from work each day. One snowy day last winter, 3,000 kilometers of Moscow streets and highways were locked in a massive traffic jam.
It took a visitor, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, to say what everyone here knows: Moscow’s traffic jams are the biggest obstacle to turning the capital into a financial hub.
Below ground in the Moscow metro, things are not much better.
Last year, about 4 million people rode the Moscow metro every workday – about 20 percent over capacity.
Now at rush hour, there are 5.6 people per square meter of metro floor space. Sardines get more space in their cans – and they're packed in oil.
Moscow city government is responding by building 70 new stations, increasing the track network by 50 percent, to 450 kilometers by 2020. But it's unclear if the city has the engineering capacity to meet those plans. Last week saw the reopening of the Circle Line at Park Kultury. It took city workers 15 months to install new escalators and turnstiles with plastic glass doors.
In another effort to rein in the number of cars, Moscow has announced that free street parking in the city center will end in September. The rate will be comparatively light, 50 rubles ($1.70) an hour. By comparison, midtown Manhattan garages often charge $8 for the first hour.
To save the 50 rubles, I can see many shoppers ordering their drivers to cruise the Bentley, contributing to limo-gridlock.
The next step should be to defend pedestrians with the technology used to keep Nazi tanks out of the city 70 years ago. To reclaim sidewalks from parked cars, all central Moscow sidewalks should be lined with steel poles, the modern equivalent of anti-tank traps.
But the core problem remains: half of Moscow’s jobs are in the core of the city.
Rather than taking the bold paths followed in the last century by leaders in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Pakistan and Nigeria, the Kremlin is taking a half step.
In April, as outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev pushed hard to polish his legacy, he announced that a series of federal agencies will be moved out of central Moscow.
Their destination: to new territories created by expanding the city’s border to the southwest. In case this move is seen as too bold, he said that a priority project will be to upgrade Kaluzhskoye Shosse. This highway is designed to speed drivers down the 25 kilometers from new government offices to the Kremlin – without traffic lights.
Original article by The Moscow News.
Photo by Slava Stepanov.