From: Alice Taylor
Decisions-Makers in Tirana Must Engage Citizens in Improving Public Transport

Many cities in South-East Europe suffer from an “outdated approach”  to urban transport planning which prioritises the construction of infrastructure for vehicles, according to a report by the SEE Change Network.

The emergence of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs) including environmentally-friendly modes of transport like public transport, walking, and cycling should be encouraged. Decision-makers in the region should actively engage citizens in the planning process so they can better meet the needs of the community and increase the democratic legitimacy of plans.

The SEE Network worked with citizens to develop SUMPs in Tirana, Albania and Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina during 2019/2020. They found that dialogue with citizens, the integration of citizens ideas and plans, giving feedback to stakeholders, and including all members of society is key to these plans working.

In terms of challenges, SEE wrote that cities in South-East Europe are amongst some of the most polluted in the world and on some days, it’s even dangerous to go outside. The mortality rate from air pollution in the region is some two to three times higher than the average. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, some 3000 people die prematurely every year from air pollution.

Viola von Cramon, an MEP and Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee said:

“It’s shocking to see that citizens in Sarajevo and other South-East European cities suffer from extremely high levels of air pollution. We need to do everything possible to develop also in those metropolitan areas as a zero-emission society and remove carbon from the energy mix used for transport.”

According to the report, cars still dominate cities in the area, often at the expense of green spaces, pedestrians, and cyclists. It noted the “excessive construction of new traffic infrastructure” which does little to alleviate the issue. This is due to the use of an outdated model called “Predict and Provide” which predicts how much traffic will increase and builds roads to accommodate it. This is instead of discouraging people to drive and providing adequate alternative methods of transport.

A survey conducted in Tirana found that in 2019, 65% of adults don’t drive, particularly women, the elderly, students, and low-income families. Despite this, 100% of the population is impacted by the effects of pollution and congestion. A further half of respondents said they don’t feel the roads are safe and drivers are not taught properly.

In 2016, 1500 people were killed and almost 55,000 were injured in the Western Balkans. This is significantly higher than the EU average.

Additionally, the use of fossil fuels and cars is increasing global warming. A study by the Regional Cooperation Council in 2018 noted an “alarming increase of temperature over the whole Western Balkans”. They predicted an increase of 1.2 degrees soon.

Another obstacle noted was the political climate in the two countries. This non-beneficial environment and the perception that they are corrupt leads to stagnation. They added that decision-maker and public officials have outdated ideas and national transport laws are not always fully implemented. Those that are, often lack monitoring and implementation plans.

Authorities also fail to collect proper data include induced demand modelling, origin-destination studies, and data on the modal split on the number of trips relating to a certain mode of transport.

Respondents noted that around 50% of the population use public transport but many more would use it more often if the service was better. SEE noted that despite this clear demand, cities in the region don’t sufficiently prioritise public transport.

Key concerns for people in Tirana include poor vehicle quality, lack of safety measures, unreliable timetables, and long journey durations. Additional issues include old, high polluting vehicles, lack of access to accurate information, and poor integration of environmentally friendly alternatives.

As a result, 74% of Tirana residents said they walk instead. However, they noted high dissatisfaction with the environment for pedestrians with more than half saying they don’t feel safe. Other issues reported were poor conditions of pavements and footpaths, lack of green spaces, and the fact that most drivers don’t demonstrate safe driving behaviour. This also results in very few resorting to cycling.

Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj told SEE:

“We can’t build sustainable cities without including citizens in the process. I often say that the biggest infrastructure project to change a city is not a boulevard, nor a big building, we know how to do those. It’s the 10 cm between our ears- one’s thinking and mentality that’s the toughest of infrastructures to transform.”

But the majority of those surveyed said they don’t trust public officials and do not discuss government decisions publicly. Many believe that becoming involved would have little impact as the government will do as they choose anyway.

The report notes that these attitudes towards public participation are closely related to the health of democracy in the respective country, as well as corruption and media freedom. As Albania is a hybrid-regime (between flawed democracy and authoritarian regime) with poor media freedom performance and high levels of perceived corruption, it makes sense that citizens are apathetic and wary.

SEE recommend authorities improve the situation by encouraging participation, providing information promptly, increasing communication, enforcing mutual respect, being more neutral, and with officials being more proficient in a range of skills.

Tirana’s pollution level is increasing on a year-by-year basis. There has been little investment in public transport but significant amounts have been spent on widening and building more roads which often requires the demolition of people’s homes.