Yekaterinburg: An Intense Week in Review

For the last 10 days, I’ve been in Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia.


IMG_7567It’s over a million people in a remarkably compact city at a dam on a river, in the midst of taiga forest (spruce, birch, larch, pine).  In fact, it’s by far the most dense and compact Russian city of its size, which means they need to get used to being a national leader in public transit development.

And yes, it already has a lot of transit.  In this first picture, note the trams, full-size motorbuses, and, at the crowded stop in the distance, trolleybuses and tiny van-like buses.  There’s also a metro.


IMG_7574 IMG_7792.jpg

Still, it’s OK if you haven’t heard of Yekaterinburg.  A year ago I’d barely heard of it either.

But last year, an energetic local NGO called, which is dedicated to improving the city’s transport and urban environment, called me, and I do my best to say yes to these things.

Yekaterinburg presents a series of transit situations common in middle-wealth places, but that I’ve also struggled with in Australia and New Zealand and the UK.  As I outlined in more detail here, the city has evolved several overlapping transit systems that compete as much as they cooperate, and as a result you can’t get to as many places as quickly as you could if they were all working together.  The trams, trolleybuses, and motorbuses overlap each other and also overlap the single metro line.  And there are about 1000 smaller buses, down to the size of vans, that do all kinds of unpredictable things, including driving rather dangerously in order to get ahead of big buses and grab their passengers.

So I was asked to work with local leaders and transit managers to hammer out a vision — including a specific map — of what that would look like.

I’m always happy to slip quietly into a city, but that certainly didn’t happen here.  The client wanted a splash, so all week I was doing public lectures, radio interviews, and high profile meetings with the City Manager, his key deputy for transportation, and even the mayor, Yevgeny Roizman — all with lots of reporters.


Mayor Roizman was especially generous with his time and interest.  In addition to our formal meeting in his office he also gave me a tour of a museum of icon painting that he founded. He also joined us for a few hours of touring the city, often interrupted by eager citizens wanting a photo with him.   He even dropped into our working sessions, with chocolate.

For much of the week, I was sequestered with a group of key staff leaders, including senior managers from the various transit operating companies and city transport and planning staff.  As I insist on doing in most of my planning projects, we locked ourselves away for 8 hours a day to hammer out a shared vision of how the city’s transit might be better if it were planned as a single network.  An excellent set of photos by gives a sense of the intensity.


(The guy drawing is Vladimir Zlokazov of  He was my main contact, advisor, negotiator and translator throughout the project.)


At the end of the week, we had a sketch of how the network could look if everything worked together.  We had tram, trolleybus, and frequent motor bus lines drawn specifically, and a general set of principles for how the enormous fleet of smaller buses would supplement this network.

We also identified some of the biggest challenges for moving forward:

  1. Fixing the fare system.  The current fare structure charges people for changing vehicles, which undermines the whole point of a highly efficient network.
  2. Reorganizing operating contracts, so that the only revenue total that matters is that from the entire network.  This is essential to eliminate competitive behavior between subsidized services, so that the result is the maximum possible access to the city for everyone.
  3. Maintaining separability from other issues.  There are 1000 other things to be done to improve transit, notably in the area of infrastructure.  But almost none of it has to be done to get the new network on the road.  We worked carefully to make sure we had a plan that didn’t require building anything more than bus stops, and that had a first phase that didn’t even require that.  This is the key to ensuring that a network plan doesn’t get stuck waiting for something to be built.

A report on this network, its benefits, and the challenges it will present, will be out soon, and I’ll do a post on it here.


(Workshop photos:



20 Responses to Yekaterinburg: An Intense Week in Review

  1. Tom April 24, 2016 at 10:13 pm #

    Wide avenues. Grid based street system. Density. Looks like a good city to plan a public transport network in, noting the obstacles listed above.

    • xen April 26, 2016 at 2:48 am #

      The pictures must have been a bit deceptive if you picked the wide avenues as the feature of the city. What’s shown are mostly parts of the streets that narrow down in other sections. Actually, relatively narrow roads (most are 2-3 lanes per side) and a corrupt combination of administration and developers that put towers on every unoccupied patch of turf they can find are a big problem for the city. Wide open spaces are a rather scarce commodity and traffic jams are ubiquitous.

  2. JJJJ April 25, 2016 at 7:26 am #

    I see headphones – was the language barrier handled with simultaneous translations?

    What about the alphabet barrier?

    • Alexandr April 25, 2016 at 8:58 am #

      Everyone on this photos knows Latin alphabet, so there is no such thing as alphabet barrier.

      • Jarrett April 25, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

        Yes, we used simultaneous translation, which slowed us down but helped us to be brief and clear. We also had several bilingual staff in the room who helped out immensely.

  3. Bjorn Swenson April 25, 2016 at 8:02 am #

    Are the thousand vans privately owned? If so, are they owned by the driver (who is free to set their own routes), small companies, or larger companies?

    • Alexandr April 25, 2016 at 8:55 am #

      Vans are privately owned by small companies. Driver’s wage includes some part of revenue got from his bus, so drivers compete for passengers.
      Routes for this vans are approved by city administration.

  4. Ervin April 25, 2016 at 7:12 pm #

    Check out my new urban development blog

  5. Jeff Wegerson April 25, 2016 at 8:53 pm #

    In the U.S. Google has created a defacto standard data reporting system for transit agencies. It has brought some amateur insights into discussions. Is there something similar in Russia?

  6. Bjorn Swenson April 25, 2016 at 9:16 pm #

    Of the readily recognizable persons, all but one person in the pictures of buses and trams (including the tram operator!) are women. All planners pictured are men.

    It goes without saying for a western audience that this is pretty terrible optics.

    • JJJJ April 26, 2016 at 10:14 am #

      Interesting observation, and something I hope Jarrett and the group keep in mind. A woman who is trip chaining with children and shopping bags may not feel the same way about a grid network that requires transfers than a point-to-point network. Aside from the difficulty created in getting on and off multiple vehicles, some transfer points may not be or may not feel safe

    • Jarrett April 28, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

      Interesting point! In many countries public transport riders are more female, and motorists more male. I don’t think this is just because men are more powerful, but also because driving cars meets emotional impulses toward self-assertion and control-of-environment that tend to be more common in men, perhaps for the same reason that violence is so strongly male. Nobody would claim that Russia is anywhere near parity in gender roles, though there have been strong professional women in the culture at least since Catherine the Great. As for the planners, I obviously don’t control who the key people on city staff are, and I had nobody there from my own firm. The head of the local NGO is female and I wish she had been there, but she chose to defer to her staff.

  7. xen April 26, 2016 at 3:16 am #

    The plan looks quite interesting in theory, never considered the idea of having so few routes covering the city but it’s the kind of plan that would work in a nice intelligently managed planned economy, not the market realities.

    In a place where Murphy’s law is the general rule, I am not sure how this would work. The problems that would need to be dealt with include:
    – traffic accidents on tram tracks on a weekly basis that would have more severe of an effect that they do with the current intestine-like scheme.;
    – government officials who would want and get their “green line” at peak hours and give no acts of copulation as to how this would affect the public transport schedule;
    – regular serious traffic jams from which even trams are not immune since most drivers think it’s their right and duty to skip the jam by driving on the tram tracks;
    – if time-based pricing is introduced, it will probably be as uncomfortable and inefficient as possible since forcing people to make multiple rides is an amazing way of implicitly getting extra profit, and if anything can be abused and exploited by the government officials, it will be. Combined with a recent increase in pricing and the fact that we now have the third (in some cases even second) most expensive public transport in Russia, noticeably pricier than it is in the neighboring regions, as well as a vehement opposition of the local population to making transfers, this will definitely not be received positively.

    So, I think this initiative will follow the typical Russian saying “We wanted to make it better, but it turned out as usual”. The scheme might not be fully implemented and there will surely quite a few problems (mostly dealing with the human factor) along the way.

    • Alexander S April 26, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

      xen, I agree with you.
      Besides, I think the city officials would like thank to this reform to reduce the socialist elements from the trasport system.

    • Jarrett April 28, 2016 at 9:20 pm #

      Xen. I repled to this idea here:

    • Alexander May 12, 2016 at 12:16 am #

      Если не делать, то точно ничего не сделаем. делать лучше имея хороший план. Джарет предлагает достаточно хороший план. Чего еще? А ничего – надо делать.

  8. Manuel Soto April 27, 2016 at 7:43 am #

    Great pics Jarrett. Looks like they were intensely engaged in the planning workshop. Congrats!

  9. Ron May 8, 2016 at 10:28 am #

    The problem of fixed-route vans driving ahead of buses to pick up passengers is very familiar from Israel, where efforts to regulate these “service taxis” have been going on since at least the 1950s. These routes are awarded officially by contract from the ministry of transport, and are supposed to complement bus service by offering additional frequency, route variants, and extended hours (including Sabbath operation, when most buses don’t run). But because the drivers’ compensation is directly linked to the number of passengers they pick up, you often end up with the vans doing their best to drive just ahead of the bus. On more than one occasion I got off a van after having climbed in, when I realized the driver was just lingering at the stop to see if any additional passengers might come before the bus arrived. There have been reorganization and re-regulation efforts about once a decade, but as long as the financial incentives for the van drivers remain as they are, it’s unlikely that their behavior will change.

    • Mike May 10, 2016 at 7:13 am #

      Yes the informal van economy could be a problem. Each one obviously sustains a livelihood so changes to their place in the transit system would need to be handled sensitively. Overall the principles brought to the city by this exercise will make for a much better system for the majority if applied. But change needs engagement and the integration of vans into the total system may be difficult and expensive. I hope it goes well.

  10. Yury May 12, 2016 at 12:56 am #

    It’s a great plan if citizens won’t pay for each passage. It’s good if I will buy some kind of a time card and transfers from for example a bus to underground will be free for me while a card is active. But I heard that our authorities wanna take money from an each passage. A scheme like that will make the city common transport too expensive for citizens. So what do u propose Jarrett?