Gear shift: how pedal power is transforming Moscow

From harsh winters to the worst traffic congestion in the world, Moscow is a tough city for cyclists. So why does the number of riders keep on rising?

8 October 2014

Gear shift: how pedal power is transforming Moscow

From harsh winters to the worst traffic congestion in the world, Moscow is a tough city for cyclists. So why does the number of riders keep on rising?


It’s midnight in Moscow and hundreds of cyclists have gathered in Sokolniki Park, the starting point for a Pushkin-themed bike ride through the heart of the capital. For the next five hours, the throng of cyclists will be joined by thousands of others and together they will take a moonlit tour of the city. Headphones plugged in to an audio recording about Pushkin’s life, they’ll pass the house where he was born, the Great Church of the Ascension where he married and several other places of significance to the Romantic poet. The event, Velonotte, attended by roughly 5,000 cyclists, was the eighth in Moscow; previous gatherings have been devoted to equally highbrow topics from the Russian heroes who resisted Napoleon in 1812 to the avant-garde architect, Konstantin Melnikov.

Velonotte was launched in 2007 in Moscow and has since expanded to other cities in Russia and around the world, including London, Istanbul and Rome. “It was a pioneering project for bike culture in Russia and for bringing new awareness of architecture, culture and urbanism to young people aged between 18 and 25,” says Sergey Nikitin, the founder of Velonotte. “We started with 100 people seven years ago and last year, we had 10,000 participants for the Mayakovsky bike ride.” The event is one of many cycling get-togethers that have sprung up in Moscow in recent years, organised by enthusiasts looking to promote bike culture in a city hostile to those on two wheels. “Cycling in Moscow is seen as dangerous, the roads are huge and there are a lot of cars,” says Vladimir Kumov, the founder of Let’s bike it!, an organisation that promotes cycling in Russia.

The Moscow city government has endeavoured to make the capital more bike-friendly but their efforts have at times been found wanting

Car sales in Russia have been rocketing since the 2000s, excluding a slump in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and another more recent one caused by a weaker rouble and western sanctions over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. The Russian automotive market grew 14% year-on-year in 2005, 36% in 2006 and 67% in 2007, according to a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development report. By 2010, sales had returned to pre-crisis levels. “People still need to show that they have a lot of money with a car and an iPhone,” says Kumov. “We are trying to change that opinion.” The result is the worst traffic congestion in the world. According to TomTom’s fourth annual index, the average car journey in Moscow takes 74% longer than it would on a traffic-free day, a figure that rises to 141% during rush hour in the evening.

“The obvious challenge is the traffic which has grown dramatically in recent years,” says Vadim Kriger, founder of Moscow Bike Tours. “From 9am to 10pm on weekdays, the centre of Moscow is a non-stop traffic jam. Nor is it easy for cyclists to cross the streets or cycle through the cars parked illegally on the pathways.” Although the introduction of paid parking last year has alleviated this problem, the dominance of cars continues to deter cyclists from using the streets, with many choosing to cycle on pavements instead, much to the irritation of pedestrians. Add to this a catalogue of poor driving habits, from road rage to rear-ending, all of which have been endlessly documented on dash-cam videos and posted on YouTube, and it’s no surprise that so many in the capital prefer using other modes of transport. Man-made impediments aside, the long and fearsome winters in Moscow make cycling impractical from November to February. It’s not only the knee-deep snow that serves as a deterrent but also the grimy slush that inevitably follows.

The first bike lane, built in 2000, was met with a barrage of mocking photos on social media, depicting the multiple obstacles that blocked the path as well as open drains

The Moscow city government has endeavoured to make the capital more bike-friendly but their efforts have at times been found wanting. Their most successful attempt to date is a pilot bike rental scheme, similar to London’s ‘Boris bikes’ and New York’s CitiBike programme, which launched in June 2013. In the 12 months that followed, roughly 46,500 people rented bikes, making a total of 66,500 journeys. While paltry when compared to the million hires in the first 10 weeks of the London launch in 2010 and the 8.7 million trips in New York’s first year, the Moscow scheme started small, launching with only 220 bikes at 30 docking stations, although this has since increased to 1,200 and 150 respectively.

The scheme’s early success meant that this June, the city government announced its expansion to 4,500 rental bikes, not far off New York’s 6,000 and roughly half of London’s 8,000. It’s a coup for cyclists. Yet one concern is that the stations will all be centrally located, a somewhat futile measure given the majority of Muscovites live outside the MKAD, a ring road that separates the city centre from the suburbs. “Moscow is a huge area and it is a challenge to commute by bike as most people live in one area and need to travel across the city to get to work or university,” says Olga Maltseva, Head of Cycling Development at the Moscow government’s Department of Transport. “So we’ve started to implement infrastructure that will help with bike-and-ride trips… Next year we’ll create covered bike parking stations at several transport hubs to allow commuters to leave their bicycles in a safe place for the whole day.” Since 2013, 1,100 cycling racks have been installed in Moscow, adds Maltseva, a figure which will be doubled by 2015.

According to Kumov, there are two words in Russian for cycling: katatsya and yezdit. While the first describes cycling for enjoyment, the second refers to it as a form of transportation

Less successful are the bicycle lanes, or lack thereof, in Moscow. The first lane, built in 2000, was met with a barrage of mocking photos on social media, depicting the multiple obstacles, such as gates, parked cars and speed bumps that blocked the path as well as open drains. Parts of one two-way cycle lane were only a metre wide. In the past year, the city government has turned its attention to the creation of bicycle lanes in parks, which although positive, critics argue, does little to promote cycling on the roads. “I think that the authorities’ biggest mistake is to create cycle lanes for recreational use rather than travel,” says Nikolai Zalessky, researcher at the Institute for Transport Economics and Transport Policy Studies.

The decision underscores an attitude prevalent in Russia, which sees cycling as a fun activity rather than a mode of transport. According to Kumov, there are two words in Russian for cycling: katatsya and yezdit. While the first describes cycling for enjoyment, the second refers to it as a form of transportation. “Even when the government talks about cycling and cycling lanes, they use the word katatsya,” says Kumov. “They recently organised a car-free day including a show with dancing but this also only promotes cycling for recreation. They don’t think to lower the speed limit or have more cycle lanes. A huge amount of money is spent but not always on the right things.”

“From my activist point of view, I think I did what I had to do. Now we need to lobby the Moscow government to do their job”

According to cycling activist and artist Anton Polsky, cyclists should not be put off by the lack of infrastructure. In 2010, Polsky created USE/LESS, a map of easy-to-cycle routes, parking places and dangerous junctions to help riders navigate the city without the help of special infrastructure. The map received widespread media coverage and is regularly cited as one of the things driving a change of attitude towards cycling in Moscow, especially among the city’s officials.

“In terms of the lack of space and the attitudes of drivers, it’s so much harder to cycle in New York than in Moscow,” says Polsky. “In Moscow, the biggest problems are the long distances and winter.” Despite the challenges, Polsky is sanguine about the future of cycling in the city given the ever-growing number of cyclists hitting the streets each year. “From my activist point of view, I think I did what I had to do,” he says. “Now we need to lobby the Moscow government to do their job.”

Text: Maryam Omidi
Image: Dmitry Tsyrencshikov