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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Traffic Lights and Road Repairs Make a Mess

MTTraffic crawling along Leningradskoye Shosse during road repairs. Streets are resurfaced only from May to early September due to the type of asphalt used.
Smolenskaya Ploshchad at rush hour is not a pretty sight. Nor was the expression on the face of Artyom Kuntsev, whose snazzy SUV was going nowhere on the Garden Ring on a recent morning.

"The pity is that this is still the fastest route," Kuntsev said.

Kunstev's daily commute to his insurance office takes him through the intersection where the 16-lane Garden Ring meets Smolenskaya Ulitsa -- one of the city's most notorious traffic hot spots.

Traffic is the scourge of any big city. But Moscow, it seems, isn't doing itself any favors. Although car ownership has more than tripled since the Soviet collapse, the city's road network has remained practically unchanged, city authorities say. Making things worse are poorly designed intersections and their need for continual upkeep, road experts say.

The Smolenskaya Ploshchad intersection has all the ingredients for the perfect jam, said Tatyana Sigayeva, chief road engineer for the Genplan Institute. The intersection stands in the way of millions of daily commuters; its eight lanes in both directions are brought to a screeching halt by traffic lights; and the incoming artery, Kutuzovsky Prospekt, narrows and ends with traffic lights. Throw in the lack of any alternate route or parallel side street to relieve the intersection of at least some of the burden, and the traffic is guaranteed to clot.

Like doctors performing bypass surgery on a terminally sick patient, the work of Genplan's engineers is to identify the clots and construct alternative routes for a road network in danger of collapsing by 2010 at the current rate of growth.

"Of course, you can do the math that if vehicle use keeps growing, everything will stop in a few years," Sigayeva said. "But society will have to adapt. Nothing will stop moving at the end of the day."

Moscow's ring-radial street system was thought up by Genplan in 1971, when the city had the Boulevard and Garden rings in place but had not yet designed the Third Ring Road, the Moscow Ring Road, or MKAD, and the Fourth Ring Road, scheduled to be finished in 2013. Back then, city authorities demanded high-speed radial connections to and from the developing suburbs and towns outside Moscow.

"The plans were very, very good," Sigayeva said. "But they did not build the radial roads quickly enough."

In the early 1990s, car ownership outstripped road construction, and municipally funded road workers simply could not keep up with the privately funded commercial buildings shooting up all over Moscow.

The problem, said Roland Lipp, president of German engineering firm Strassenhaus, is that Soviet authorities neglected the need for effective road links when erecting residential buildings. "They just built roads around everything. Transport needs to be integrated with buildings," said Lipp, whose firm is experimenting in the south of Moscow with an innovative concept to build highways on top of buildings.

Lipp said Moscow's big problem was traffic lights. "You can build roads as wide as you like, but if the cars have to stop at traffic lights, it does not matter how wide the road is," he said.

What the city needs is not wider roads but side roads, Sigayeva said.

Compounding the problem is road maintenance -- a tricky task in a city where the weather shifts between extremes every year. Dorinvest, the state firm responsible for the upkeep of the city's 16 radial arteries, can only resurface roads during a four-month window from May to the beginning of September due to the nature of the surfacing materials used, said company spokesman Sergei Chekin.

"That's what we call the construction season," Chekin said. "Unfortunately, it is also the summer season when there are the most cars on the roads."

Cold weather restricts repair work to emergency pothole filling using so-called cold mix asphalt. "It's just to prevent accidents," Chekin said.

If the temperature is just below freezing, usually as winter is just coming or just going, Dorinvest uses hot-rolled asphalt to resurface large sections of road. The old surface is ripped off beforehand.

Tarmac is used during summer months, because it can only be laid when the average temperature is guaranteed not to dip below 5 degrees Celsius. The asphalt is simply steamrolled on top of the old surface. The radial arteries, particularly Leningradskoye Shosse and Yaroslavskoye Shosse, have just had long sections resurfaced. Dmitrovskoye Shosse is now being resurfaced.

This year alone, Dorinvest has resurfaced about 100,000 square meters of road, up 10 percent from last year because of this year's unusually warm winter. Melted ice refroze in cracks in the road, further eroding the concrete surfaces and creating potholes.

"Because of the increase in car use, we are pushing the window of construction back each year," Chekin said.

All 16 arteries, with the exception of Kutuzovsky Prospekt, need some resurfacing work. Prioritizing which streets get fixed first is easy. "We have to repair the roads used by the government agencies first," Chekin said.

Editor's note: This is the third of four stories about Moscow traffic jams.