Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj has been recognized as one of 21 Heroes 2021 by the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative.
Referring to the Mayor as a “wise leader” the publication states that during 2020, he “looked to a new urban age of resilience, setting a clear mission to spur green projects that would alter vehicular dominance in favor of pedestrians and cyclists.”
It noted that he oversaw the replacement of parking spaces with wide pavements and added 11km of pop-up bike lanes.
He is quoted as saying that “the biggest infrastructure project to change in a city is not a boulevard, nor a big building. We know how to do those. It’s the 10 centimeters between our ears – one’s thinking and mentality – that is the toughest of infrastructures to transform.”
The nomination is surprising for Tirana residents who have experienced a year of horrendous traffic throughout the city. The ongoing construction around the Astir part of the city has resulted in daily delays, meaning it can take over one hour to get to the Autostrad. At peak hours, large swathes of the city come to an almost total standstill causing significant issues for drivers.
The widening of pavements and the introduction of cycle lanes has also caused chaos in the capital. For example, on Rruga Durres, the Municipality changed it from a two-way street with four lanes of traffic to a one-way street with two lanes for bicycles and pedestrians in addition to the existing pavements. The issue here was that there was no alternative provided for the traffic that used this main arterial road.
Meanwhile, as we explained earlier in Exit News, the argument for car overuse is not supported by statistics. Albania has one of the lowest rates of cars per capita and oil consumption per capita in Europe, compared to model countries for the use of bicycles and public transport.
Above all, as the municipality continues to publicly promote the use of public transport and bicycles in the city, it has continued to allow mass construction near the city center, which only increases traffic and movements towards it. Furthermore, countless homes have been demolished and residents expropriated, sometimes without compensation, to make way for Veliaj’s new roads.
The significant increase in construction, with permits granted by Veliaj, has led to increased traffic congestion in the city. The narrowing of roads to make way for bike lanes and the removal of parking spaces have caused havoc for residents.
On the topic of permits, the construction boom has been enormous under his tenure. Green spaces, trees, children’s playgrounds, historic villas, and citizen’s homes have been demolished to make way for huge skyscrapers containing real estate that is out of the reach of most. Some 1028 permits were issued between 2017 and 2019 covering almost 3 million square meters.
Furthermore, during 2020 there was hardly any public transport. Busses were not operational for several months due to COVID-19 restrictions. When they became operational, as usual, they do not run on schedule and are over-packed with people in violation of COVID-19 protocols. This made them almost unusable for many citizens.
Permit schemes in place for residents that require the presence of a permit in the window resulted in alleged abuse. Municipality staff put fines on cars even when the permit was displayed. Residents were told they had to pay the fine first and then appeal rather than being able to appeal before paying a fine.
Parking and traffic fines have increased tenfold in Tirana during the last four years, under the watch of Veliaj. Revenue from these fines has also increased from 151 million ALL (EUR 1.22 million) to 458 million (EUR3.69 million) between 2016 and 2018., There is no data available for the value of fines in 2019 or 2020.
So what about his environmental credentials?
The Municipality of Tirana is the 4th biggest offender for leaking waste and plastics into the Mediterranean Sea. This is quite an achievement considering Durres which actually sits on the coast, only contributes 443 tonnes per year.
According to the IUCN “The Mediterranean: Mare plasticum” report, it leaks 1,123 tonnes of waste into the sea every year. Albania is the worst offender for plastic waste passing into the ocean in the Western Balkans.
Tirana is also consistently ranked as one of the world’s and Europe’s most polluted cities. According to a new report published by the European Environment Agency, people in Albania have a higher chance of dying from pollution than those in Western Europe.
Albania found itself second on the “worst countries” list, after Bosnia and Herzegovina. In BiH, 27% of deaths are related to air pollution and environmental issues. The rate of deaths is the highest in Europe, and 14 percentage points higher than the median of the EU which is just 13%. With 23% of recorded deaths due to environmental matters, it is 10 percentage points higher than the European average
Furthermore, Albanians overall have one of the highest risks of premature death due to air quality on the European continent.
In terms of Veliaj’s tree planting, Exit has repeatedly debunked his claims which include planting 25,000 trees in a day. He then claimed that on average 100,000 trees were planted every day despite no evidence of such a large amount of trees being found.
In fact, by 2018, Albania had lost 378 of woodland, shrinking from 1,052,237 to 1,051,859 between 2016 and 2018.
Veliaj then claimed he won an award from the UN for Tirana being “one of the cities with the best economic performance.”
He posted on 6 September after attending the annual UN Bridge for Cities 4.0 Conference held in Vienna where he took part in a roundtable discussing the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The UN confirmed that he hadn’t won any award, that Tirana hadn’t been evaluated, and that the Mayor had just taken part in a discussion.
Let us also not forget that Albania and Tirana do not recycle any waste, instead preferring landfill and incinerators. Mayor Erion Veliaj proudly touted the Sharra landfill as a great place for people to work and a success story for the Municipality, until a 17-year-old boy Ardit Gjoklaj was found dead there. It was found that the company 3R Shpk that was running the site had not registered him and were not paying taxes and social security at the time the minor died. It was alleged he was killed due to an accident causing “blunt force trauma” that occurred in the absence of proper health and safety requirements.
The owner of the company 3R shpk, Edurim Teqja was declared as wanted by the police but following a botched investigation, no charges were ever brought against him. Instead, he was allowed to rename the company to Alb-Tech Plast shpk and received a new license from the Ministry of the Environment in April 2019.
When the child’s death took place, the landfill was working with the Municipality Veliaj promoted it as a great place to work “for a job with social security”. Furthermore, Teqja was at the time, the head of the Socialist Party in Peqin.
Two journalists who tried to investigate and report on the scandal were censored and fired. One of the journalists, Alida Tota was attacked in a pro-government media smear campaign and temporarily left the country, fearing for her life.
Veliaj has been accused of interfering in the publication of material relating to the death and the Socialist Party boycotted a parliamentary media committee to prevent Tota from testifying on it in public.
So excuse my cynicism. As much as I love this city, I do not see any real and effective evidence of Veliaj being a hero in any shape or form, much less one that cares about the health of citizens and the environment in which they live.