Ukraine: roads to reform
Despite the ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s Eastern regions and Russian occupation of Crimea, the 2013/14 revolution in Ukraine kickstarted a period of social, political and economic reform which is bringing widespread change to a country that has been habitually mismanaged by consecutive governments since independence in 1991. Behind the headline grabbing stories of war and violence, the overwhelming majority of the country (90%) is still peaceful and safe and Ukrainians have been remarkably stoic in their efforts to pull their country back from the brink of economic collapse. However, the challenge of reforming Ukraine into a modern European state is monumental, not just because of its size but also because of the poor state of its existing infrastructure which has been chronically underfunded and poorly maintained for the past 2030 years. The transport sector is no exception and, as a new generation of civic and business leaders take on this task, this article looks at the situation on Ukraine’s roads.
The scale of the problem
Covering an enormous 600,000km2, Ukraine is two and a half times the size of the UK and is the largest European country by area. It has a 1,400km border with EU countries and contains 170,000km of roads, a 22,000km rail network and 1,600km of waterways. Four out of ten European transport corridors pass through Ukraine and a number of large ports provide freight access to the black sea. However, when considering transport in Ukraine, big is not always beautiful.
Worst roads in Europe?
Built mostly in the 1960’s and 70s, Ukraine’s roads are notoriously bad. Despite Ukraine’s vast size there are just 200km of motorway in the entire country. This is enough to get you from Kyiv’s new airport to the city centre but once you arrive in the city the potholes are never ending. Research suggests that only 50% of Ukraine’s roads meet minimum standards and another 40% require major rebuilds. To anyone who has ever driven in Ukraine even these figures seem optimistic. Except for a few roads connecting main cities, Ukrainian roads are almost universally bad.
Poor lighting, inadequate signage, reckless driving and poor law enforcement create serious safety problems, many thousands of LADAs and other Soviet era cars still chug along the country’s roads pumping out unfiltered exhaust fumes and smart transport planning simply doesn’t exist. Ukraine is the only country in Europe for which Audi does not produce satellite navigation maps.
If you still doubt the seriousness of the situation type ‘Ukrainian roads’ into Youtube and you’ll see what I mean. Type the same into Google and headlines such as “Is this the worst road in Europe?”and “Ukraine’s Roads: An Endangered Species”will fill your screen. It’s bad and the economic and environmental costs are high.
Last year a local logistics services company called Sovtes used data from their systems to compare the shortest routes to key cities with the actual routes taken. Their analysis showed an average difference of 15,5%
Here are some examples:
Kyiv - Dnipropetrovsk
The shortest route: 451 km (via Kremenchuk)
The optimal route: 531 km (via Poltava, Krasnohrad)
Difference: 80 km (17,7%)
Kyiv - Zaporizhzhia
The shortest route: 517 km (via Kremenchuk)
The optimal route: 621 km (via Poltava, Krasnohrad)
Difference: 80 km (20,1%)
Kyiv – IvanoFrankivsk
The shortest route: 550 km (via Zhytomyr, Ternopil)
The optimal route: 716 km (via Lviv, Stryi)
Difference: 166 km (30,1%)
Perhaps unsurprisingly the same problems also affect Ukrainian cyclists and efforts to improve the country’s cycling infrastructure are equally hampered by outdated legislation and lack of funding. Only ten cities in Ukraine actually have cycle paths and, just like the roads, where they do exist they are generally poorly maintained and not fit for purpose. In the capital city there are just 10km of dedicated cycle paths and just 42km in Lviv Ukraine’s most bicycle friendly city.
The bumpy road to reform
Under pressure from an unhappy public and an impatient international community the difficult task of first restructuring and then rebuilding the country is now underway and while, opinions differ as to how well this process is going, some progress can be seen. Constitutional change has just given Ukraine’s regional authorities a much greater degree of autonomy including responsibility for a large number of the roads in their towns and cities replacing the previously centralised system of management that was controlled in Kyiv.
This has been welcomed as a positive step but, as activists have highlighted, a new 5% local gas tax which has been earmarked for local roads is barely enough to keep roads in good shape. Many roads need rebuilding altogether so a much greater level of finance will be required from the national budget if the situation is to improve.
Another positive example is recent legislation that paves the way for the reintroduction of speed cameras on Ukrainian roads after being previously banned as ‘unconstitutional’.
Work is also underway to improve the seriously out dated national building code which sets the rules for infrastructure development. Adopted in the 1990s, the code sets certain standards, limits and parameters for the development of the road infrastructure. Rather than facilitating development the code enshrines inappropriate standards and makes it exceptionally difficult to implement changes or improvements. The standard lane width which is defined for roads in Ukrainian cities for example is the same as that defined for a highway a width of 4.25 to 4.75 meters wide enough for two cars. Small roundabouts are not allowed and the code contains just two paragraphs on cycle paths, setting inappropriate standards for their construction. Now, thanks to lobbying from groups such at the Kyiv Cyclists Association (AVK), campaigners are confident that the code will be updated with new standards later this year paving the way for the construction of a new infrastructure over the next 510 years.
The role of technology
It’s fair to say that ITS systems are almost non-existent in Ukraine when compared to Western European countries however, given the size and quality of Ukraine’s IT and Software sector, it is perhaps no surprise that Ukrainians have been quick to turn to technology to help them improve the situation.
Companies like Sovtes are developing online tools to streamline access to logistics services, innovative apps like uaroads (uaroads.com) and navivzor (navizor.com)are mapping and providing qualitative data on the state of Ukraine’s roads, while groups such as the Tesla Club Ukraine (plugshare.com)are working to install a network of charging stations across the country for electric vehicles.
Seizing the opportunities
With so much work to do, opportunities exist at almost every level in Ukraine. If you consider that bus tickets are still validated using a small hole-punch you’ll get some idea of the potential for technological change in Ukraine. There are currently no speed cameras, almost no electronic signs/info boards, and no traffic monitoring systems etc. Yet they are all desperately needed.
Activists, business leaders and civil society groups are increasingly well organised and are already working to improve their respective areas and legislative progress is being made to enable more to be done. But more work is required to improve the investment climate and ease of doing business in Ukraine and businesses would benefit from greater incentives to take part in the construction and repair of local roads.
So, as Ukraine rebuilds itself as a modern European country, I very much hope that Ukraine’s European neighbours will step in and assist wherever possible. Sharing professional expertise, technical solutions and European best practices, the UK and Europe can play an important role in helping to improve the lives of millions of Ukrainians and, in doing so, they would create strong personal and economic ties with this large, ambitious and talented country.
|About ITS Ukraine Established in 2015 ITS Ukraine aims to link, support and promote local and international transport technology providers in Ukraine. Our goal is to increase the use of intelligent transport systems (ITS) in Ukraine and to contribute to the development of a national transport network that will boost economic growth, reduce pollution and make travel easier and safer for everyone.