A Rare Thos. Friedman Moment

So I was listening to a taxi driver yesterday and this morning, about other taxi drivers. People with cars complain about the traffic in Tbilisi, but it’s not nearly as bad as it could be. For the capital of a medium-income country, a capital that moreover accounts for upwards of two-thirds of the country’s economic activity, getting across town doesn’t take as much time as one would think. A vigorous campaign of minor physical improvements over the last year has also partly curbed some of the bad habits that used to cause bigger backups. Better infrastructure and easy availability of alternatives make for fewer cars on the roads.

Public transport isn’t bad, but the key components of transport in Tbilisi are the shared taxis, known locally as marshrutki. Minibuses that drive fixed routes carry people all over the city, and are almost constantly full. As far as I can tell, the network is dense (I once asked for a map showing city bus and marshrutka routes and was roundly laughed at for my trouble) and frequency is high. Hours covered on many routes are good; as my Friedmanesque interlocutor told me, each minibus in service supports three to five families – several shift drivers plus maintenance and support people.

The marshrutki are not without their problems. They’re often reckless in traffic, and many of them are visibly both decrepit and polluting. On the other hand, the market is good enough that I also see an increasing number of modern minibuses plying the trade. A gradual program of forcibly retiring the worst vehicles and supporting (if necessary) owner/operators in purchasing newer vehicles that are more efficient and environmentally friendlier would help the city keep its transport network while moving closer to European standards of air quality.

That’s not what’s going to happen, however. The city recently held a tender for control of designated marshrutka routes, and four companies emerged as the winners. (Presumably combined with some sort of licensing regime to keep entrepreneurs from offering people a service. Dumb idea.) That’s where things get fishy, according to civil.ge:

The opposition members of Tbilisi City Council say that the tender won by four companies, were in fact part of same business group close to the authorities and in particular to Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava. Opposition Republican Party said that it had obtained official tender documents indicating that all four firms have the same legal representative and that three of them were established just ahead of tender on the same day, using the same notary services.

Georgia has made a lot of progress in corruption perception, particularly compared with its neighbors. If this story is true, it’s a high-profile example that could change those perceptions right back.

The taxi driver figured his own line of work had a year or two of grace before the same thing happened to him. Larger taxi companies are already competing with independent drivers — I think this has been a net positive — and he expected the city to impose licensing and monopoly (or near-monopoly) on taxi services next. Georgia’s famously open capitalism is tightening up.

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.