Transportation and Smart Mobility Systems in Tbilisi
by Nino Siradze
Tbilisi has undergone serious transformations in past 25 years and this process is still ongoing. Since its foundation in the 5th century AD, the city has shaped its appearance and developed its character, under the influence of numerous foreign invasions and the domination of various cultures.
In 1921, Georgia became part of the Soviet Union and Tbilisi remained a capital of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1991. After secession from the Soviet Union and restoring independence of Georgia, a brief civil war soon emerged in 1991-1992. These events caused sharp decrease in the economy and created chaos in urban infrastructure management, hence leading to stagnation of many public services, transportation included. Following a bloodless “Rose Revolution” in 2003 and the election of Mikheil Saakashvili as a president, the economic situation started to improve.
Nowadays, Tbilisi serves as the country’s primary industrial, social and cultural center. GDP per capita has risen steadily over past 10 years reaching approximately 5,000 USD in 2015, which is 2.4 times more as compared to that of 2005. . The city covers an area of 720 km2 and is the most populated in Georgia with approximately 1,100,000 inhabitants according to results of the 2014 census, which is seven times more than the country’s 2nd and 3rd most populated cities, Batumi and Kutaisi .
Transport system overview
While being the capital of Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia during 1921-1990, many infrastructure projects were started in Tbilisi, including construction of new roads and railways connecting it to other big cities, building of the Metro in 1952-1966 and an expansion of bus, trolleybus and electric Tram networks, which have been operating in the city ever since 1904. During that period, public transport was the main mode of transportation.
After the civil war in 1991, due to instability and a decline in the economy, public transport infrastructure was no longer adequately maintained and as expected, went stale. During this period, privately owned local minibuses, “Marshrutkas”, emerged and became the dominant mode of transportation, which they remain up to these days.
Since 2003, after the “Rose Revolution”, many important steps were taken to renew infrastructure and advance public services in Georgia, particularly in Tbilisi.
Road networks in the city were considerably improved and expanded. Possibly the most ambitious initiative was the reconstruction of Hero’s square in 2010 and building of a new urban highway in the center of the city, which was cut through Mziuri Park near central Zoo. This project was highly controversial, as its construction not only had damaging environmental impacts, but also opposed primary transportation planning recommendations, set by the Tbilisi Master Plan in 2008 - to invest more money in Public Transport improvement rather than foster usage of private cars . The negative results brought by that venture are clearly visible nowadays – urban highway and Hero’s square are on the top position in the list of areas with most severe traffic congestions .
On the other hand, substantial changes were made in public transport services as well – in 2005 with financial support from EBRD, used buses (which still were better than existing ones) were imported and several new itineraries were added. Old trolleybus and tram lines were closed in 2006. In 2009, ownership and management of city bus infrastructure was transferred to company “Tbilisi Metro”, property of the municipal government. In 2010 the “Marshrutka” system was modified - old vehicles were replaced with new ones, now exclusively owned, operated and managed by the private company “Tbilisi Minibus”. Fares for single transfer by minibus increased by 60% and by 250% in the case of bus and metro.
From the beginning of 2017, the current municipal government has started to renew the bus fleet. This initiative has made buses much more attractive for passengers, as compared to data from the past year .
Smart Mobility in Tbilisi
“Metromoney” and “Express Card” Smart Cards
To make the payment system in public transport more efficient, in 2007, Tbilisi metro introduced the contactless card “Metromoney”, which gradually became the only means of payment for the transfer. The same card got integrated into the new bus payment system in 2009 and later on became accepted in minibuses as well. In addition to an easier payment process, smart cards enabled more flexible control over tickets with reduced fares (e.g. for students, or pensioners) as well as free ticketing (e.g. for pupils, or beneficiaries of various social programs). However, it was not until 2012 that the unified payment system was developed – it made it possible for card owners to use the bus and metro for free within 90 minutes of the first payment. Nevertheless, private minibuses were not included in the same discount scheme.
In 2012 ticketing functionality was integrated into new credit cards - “Express Card”, issued by the same bank that financed the smart payment systems project . Since 2018, it was made possible to implement payment functionality into credit cards issued by other companies as well.
Contactless payment in bus with banking card 
Digital Timetables and online tracking for mobile devices
One of the main problems with public transport, as reported by passengers in several surveys , was the instability and unclear timetables. Along with the optimization of existing bus routes and schedules, additional tools were developed - in 2011 digital GPS tracking devices were introduced to track buses in real-time and display estimated waiting time on digital timetables installed on bus stops. The same information was made available through the website .
In 2012, an additional service was developed for receiving the expected waiting time as an SMS notification. This solution comes in handy in certain areas, where digital tables are not installed and it is possible to get bus arrival times by sending the bus stop ID Code to the corresponding service number .
Real-time bus arrival information and the Journey planner was also integrated into new.
Mobile App, made available since 2013.
Current situation and future plans
Unified payment schemes for bus and metro, had a positive impact on combining those two modes for daily commute. Though it is possible to use same contactless cards for payment in minibuses, “Marshrutka” tickets are excluded from unified discount schemes, thus resulting in a small number of transfers between minibuses and other modes of public transportation.
Despite higher fares and inexistence of fixed timetables, the minibus remains the most used mode of public transportation, though numbers have declined slightly since 2011 . The main reason for this, as reported by passengers, is more flexible itineraries – minibuses operate on longer distances, their network is better developed in suburban areas and they are frequently used to get from those districts to the city center or other distant areas, without having to change mode of transportation.
According to 2016 research, market share for Public transport has decreased since 2011 from 49% to 39%.
Though there is no expected boost in population growth in the coming years, the economic growth is likely to continue, improving revenue of citizens and thus increasing the number of private car ownership, which has already grown significantly over the past few years .
This estimation is backed up by results of surveys, which show strong correlation between ownership of cars and average household income . Issues of raised private car usage are particularly important to address as cars are causing 71% of air pollution in Georgia . Given that almost half of them are registered in Tbilisi, environmental problems in the city will become more serious very soon, if no actions are made to favor usage of mass transit.
Currently, the city’s transport planning is at a turning point - the government must make crucial decisions to avoid aggravating existing problems.
The case of Tbilisi is a good example of digital solutions preceding physical infrastructure development. Instead of investing finances into creation of the Transport Master Plan, emphasizing the importance of mass transit, planning, research and optimization of itineraries, money was spent on several smart solutions, including smart cards and GPS tracking of buses.
However, information generated through these devices was not used centrally and effectively for further development and maintenance of the system. This problem could have been partially caused by separate management of data – a private company holds information from Smart Cards, whilst the municipal government only accesses data for reduced and free tickets for financial analysis. 
The existing situation indicates, that implementing smart solutions for public transport in Tbilisi was rather caused by a private sector push than a clear vision of what positive impacts digitalization can bring to an already well-functioning system.
As experience from Tbilisi proves, smart solutions are only good and effective if built over a carefully planned transport policy, solid infrastructural basis, and implemented with clear understanding of how generated data can be used for further development and optimization of the system.