The citizens of Tirana are faced during these days with heavy traffic and increasingly problematic situations with regard to parking in the city. These problems are of course not completely new. They have been caused by the uncontrolled increase in construction density in the city while the public infrastructure has failed to keep up the pace of growth. However, in recent months the situation has deteriorated significantly.
As if the closure of the Skënderbeg Square (and intermittently of Mother Teresa Square and now also Italy Square) wasn’t enough, recent months have seen the rollout of the new bicycle lanes, which have further increased traffic congestion. Not only have the lanes narrowed the streets, but they have also eliminated parking spaces, mostly used by neighborhood residents and not by visitors.
The Municipality’s response to this situation is a constant refrain that citizens should learn to move on bicycles and to not overuse their cars, as they have done until now. The mayor, who distributes daily recorded tapes to all the media, does not let an opportunity go to waste without constantly repeating this message, all while the media is strictly prohibited from ever raising questions or concerns about this policy.
European cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen are being used as propagandistic examples from which the citizens of Tirana must draw inspiration. The Municipality is therefore very clear on its message: the citizens are the problem though their constant abuse of cars while the poor urban planning is not to blame.
There are two issues that are immediately come to mind when hearing in this message.
First, the issue of parking for neighborhood residents is totally excluded from this message. Thousands of families residing in older apartment blocks or private houses without parking amenities, in what were once some of the best urbanized quarters with plenty of spaces available that would be later used for new construction, today are given no options at all from the Municipality regarding residential parking.
Not only parking, but access itself has been made difficult for residents of these areas, as there is almost no resting area nearby for many homes through which cars can access them. What this practically entails is that there is today a pressure, and not a gentle one, on all these homeowners to sell their properties on the cheap as soon as possible and to buy new apartments, thus favoring the construction entrepreneurs which are politically connected to the mayor and are also the owners of the most important media sources in the country.
Secondly, the whole narrative of the Municipality is based on a great lie, which is that Tirana citizens overuse their cars and therefore steps should be taken to limit such behavior.
The truth is the complete opposite: Albanians are a poor people, and as such have far fewer cars, consume much less fuel, and move much less than the citizens of developed European nations.
Let’s go through these facts, starting with the number of cars. Using World Bank data, last updated in 2013, one can easily compare the number of vehicles per capita between countries, as shown in Figure 1 below. Although one can claim that there are differences between car ownership in Tirana and other cities in the country, this is true for other capitals as well.
As can be seen, the number of motor vehicles per capita in Albania is up to five times lower compared to countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, or Denmark – the propaganda models for the Municipality. Let’s keep in mind that the Belgians and Dutch own 5 times more cars while also making use of a much better public transportation system, available for locations in and outside their cities.
Albanians own less than half the vehicles per capita compared even to countries in the region like Montenegro or Macedonia. In fact, Albania is the very last country in Europe for this metric, being left behind by Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia as well.
The natural, devil’s advocate, response to this claim might be that Albanians, though they own fewer cars than other Europeans, still over-use them. An indirect way of analyzing this claim is to consider the amount of fuel consumed on a per-capita basis between countries. For this specific metric there are minor differences between statistical sources, but they tend to be quite minimal and tell the same story.
Figure 2 compares the same countries as before, using IndexMundi/CIA Factbook last year’s data. Albania appears to have a similar fuel consumption compared to the countries of the region.
It is worth noting that the countries in the region have a functional rail network, with national and international connections, covering large parts of especially freight transport, thus creating a much more efficient fuel consumption.
Meanwhile, compared to the most developed European countries, and the models for bicycle use, Albanians are once again far behind. They consume up to 6 times less fuel per-capita than the “cycling” Dutch whom Erion Veliaj often mentions. Once again, keep in mind that this occurs even though these developed countries can make use of some of the world’s most developed public transportation systems.
These very simple statistics are more than enough to shoot holes right through the great like propagated by the Municipality of Tirana. Albanians do not own more cars, do not use them more, and move much less than their counterparts in the region and Europe. If we follow the Municipality’s argument, “model” nations like the Dutch or the Danes are far more abusive than Albanians in using cars.
So which is the truth then?
Albanians do not abuse their cars, not because they might not want to, but because they don’t the economic ability to do so. Rather, it is unthinkable that Albanians can develop economically by being able to move as little as they currently do. Unfortunately, we have a much more static and isolated life than other European societies, and we are not the “car lovers” that Erion Veliaj’s propaganda has tried to portray.
The chaos created by traffic and lack of parking in Tirana is not something natural and inevitable for a city that still does not even have 1 million inhabitants. It is the result of corrupt decisions to build everywhere without limits, an unprecedented process that is unmatched by any other Eastern European city, let alone a Western one. All this while the infrastructure and public transportation in the city and the surrounding areas are still at a very primitive level.
Bicycle lanes by themselves should be a welcome development, but, unfortunately, they have become the Municipality’s justification for the chaos crated from the current projects being constructed in central areas, as well as those that are in the pipeline waiting for the building permit. To make matters worse, the bicycle lanes will therefore be used as a means to pressure residents to buy apartments and parking spaces from the construction businesses connected to the Municipality, and to sell their old properties.
Erion Veliaj is not saving the city through the bicycle lanes, he is using them as an excuse for his next theft.