When residents of an apartment block in a leafy area of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s business capital, came out into their courtyard one morning last year, they discovered a tree that had been chopped down at the root. The culprit, they later discovered, was a motorist who had resorted to drastic measures to create a parking spot.
Such is the situation for car owners in a city where parking is getting ever more expensive and harder to find. The number of vehicles on Almaty streets has exploded over the past two decades.
Authorities in Almaty are wrestling with the issue, and have taken steps in recent years to improve quality of life. Two things in particular that they are working on are reducing traffic jams and rooting out illegal parking. This has come at a cost for the motorists, however.
The figures illustrate an impressive challenge. According to official city data from earlier this year, there are more than 450,000 light automobiles registered in Almaty – that is around one vehicle for every four inhabitants. In addition, around 200,000 to 250,000 cars pass through every year. The result is chronically gridlocked traffic at peak hours on many of the city’s 1,700 kilometers of streets.
A major cause of traffic jams is parking. Roads teeming with unevenly parked cars from end to end are a common sight. Double-parking is common, further complicating the passage of other motorists. Disregarding the risk of incurring a ticket, flagrant illegal parking, commonly on sidewalks and in pedestrian crossings, is routine. The irritation becomes most intense for municipal workers in winter, when cars impede the passage of snow-clearing machinery.
Waves of popular indignation have, at stages, forced city police to take more robust action against delinquent parkers.
In recent times, the city government has pledged to stiffen penalties and to expand its fleet of tow trucks. Another preferred but convoluted method traffic inspectors use to clamp down on rule breakers is to unscrew and remove license plates. Motorists only get the plates back after paying fines.
At the less punitive end of the spectrum, authorities are battling to improve and systematize supply of parking spots, but doing so is requiring the slaying of some sacred cows.
In high-demand areas – such as near shopping malls, business centers and bazaars – managing and gathering the revenue from parking has been the preserves of a large army of often unauthorized attendants known as “zhilety” for their distinctive green waistcoats. In public areas, drivers could always reserve the right not to pay any fees, but most did so out of concern they would return to their vehicles only to find scratched paintwork or slashed tires. These attendants typically operated under the aegis of informal gangs.
Experts have only come up with vague calculations on the scale of the turnover of cash handled by the zhilety. Motoring news website Kolesa.kz has cited law enforcement sources as saying that they estimate that before the attendants were officially forbidden in November from taking cash payments on the street, they were likely raking in $1 million every month.
In the months running up to that, Almaty government marked out up to 6,000 metered parking spots across central and business districts of the city. A mobile app has been created to help expedite payment, although users have complained of multiple glitches. Around 12,000 cars can be accommodated daily in this fashion. Authorities plan to increase the number of parking spots to 10,000.
Workers in yellow waistcoats with a private company called Almaty SpetsTekhParking Service inspect parked cars to see they have paid. Motorists are under strict instruction to never give any cash to an attendant in a yellow waistcoat.
While this has cleared up the parking industry, it has also significantly increased costs for motorists. When the “zhilety” still ruled the road, 200 tenge (around $0.60) was the usual fee for a spot for the entire day. Metered spots now cost 100 tenge for just one hour. Almaty SpetsTekhParking Service is offering 6,000 tenge monthly tickets.
Almaty SpetsTekhParking Service told EurasiaNet.org that motorists have taken up their services with gusto – not that they have any choice. Daily parking spot occupancy exceeds 85 percent. Season tickets make up a relatively small proportion of the company’s revenues, however.
The regulation of parking has proven lucrative for the city government too. In the first half of 2016 alone, for the relatively small area under its auspices, the company paid the city around 250 million tenge ($770,000) in taxes. By way of comparison, the company paid 22.1 million tenge ($68,000) in taxes for all of 2015, the news website Radiotochka.kz reported. With the “zhilety” being squeezed out and the metered parking areas growing in number, revenues will likely soar.
But all this has driven cost-conscious motorists to seek ever more creative, and disruptive, ways of avoiding charges.
Apartment courtyards are a popular work-around. Starting in the early morning, before the working day begins, these areas begin to fill with cars. As a result, residents parked there already often find themselves hemmed in. The jam is so intense that mothers with baby-strollers are regularly forced to walk in the middle of the road.
Pensioner Alexander Kislyakov said going home means negotiating an obstacle course.
“I’m pretty old, but I have to jump [around cars]. Now I only go out when it is absolutely necessary,” he complained.
Some residents have taken to installing their own unauthorized car barrier systems. Others erect dummy parking meters to deter others. When they spot them, however, emergency authorities take down illegal barriers as they can pose a hazard.
Aydin Kerimbek, a representative with Almaty city government, has said that there are plans to erect multistory carparks in the coming two years. Forcible acquisitions of the required real estate are now underway to bring the projects to fruition, he said.
“Paid parking is a protective measure designed to unclog the metropolitan center. In Almaty, we want to create a space that is comfortable for residents and tourists, where you can walk and pleasantly spend time with children and elderly relatives,” Kerimbek said.
City authorities are making little secret of the fact that their ultimate goal is to squeeze residents out of their private vehicles in the interest of improving environmental standards. Eventually, only the best-off will be able to afford to regularly use their car.
Officials would instead like to see more people switching to public transport or even bicycles. To that end, dedicated lanes have appeared around the city for the fleet of trolleybuses and buses. Already, however, buses are packed to bursting point at rush hour. As for cycling, the network of bike lanes is still quite limited. And with Almaty situated on the side of a mountain, long rides require expending a physical effort that can be trying for anybody short of peak fitness.
Almaty’s motorists, it would seem, are to be weeded out by natural selection.
Aktan Rysaliev is a pseudonym for a journalist working in Almaty, Kazakhstan.