Moscow has shown great progress in the past ten years : impressive construction of public transport, housing and recreational areas, significant improvement of climate for businesses and increasing participation from citizens in the life of the city. What enabled those impressive results, in particular what has been the role of the public policy ? How much of this policy could or should be copied by other cities in the world ?

Even though the economic sanctions have weakened the Russian economy as a whole, ie the national growth seems to be around 1% currently, whereas it was at 5-10% in the 2000s, Moscow seems to capture most of the Russian growth and shows some impressive dynamism. Actually the influence of Moscow even goes beyond the administrative boundaries of the Moscow Metropolitan Area, as it provides jobs to people in the neighboring regions. The population of the Metropolitan Area now exceeds 20 million people – Moscow city itself hosts 12 million people. The progress of public transport is probably the best achievements so far of the mayor Sergey Sobianin, appointed in 2010, and his Deputy for Transport, Maxim Lixutov. Among other projects, the city has opened in 2016 the Moscow Central Line, a new railway line with 31 stations, and will finalize in 2020 the construction of 200 km of metro lines with 100 new stations. It has also restricted the traffic of cars and trucks in the city center to make it more livable, implemented strict car parking policy while also facilitating the parking trough well-designed apps, successfully encouraged alternative modes of transport such as bike and car sharing, and eased the usage of public transport with the creation of the Troika card, an integrated smart card for transport, or the ability to pass the metro barriers simply with one’s contactless banking card. As a result the number of cars in central Moscow was reduced by 1/4 since 2012 while the average speed increased by 12% ; search time for a parking space was reduced by 65%) ; and the average waiting time in public transport in the city center has been reduced from 16 to 8 mn. Based on these achievements, Moscow won in 2016 an International Transport Award by the OECD’s International Transport Forum (ITF) for tackling traffic gridlock[1].

Massive investment is made to renovate the housing, as it turns that the one built during the Soviet era is no longer viable. The Program for Renovation of Residential Buildings, endorsed in August 2017, plans the demolition of more than 5000 five-storey buildings dating from the Krushchev time and resettlement of 1 million people until 2032, with a $ 6.2 billion budget. Higher buildings are designed to take advantage of the rising price of land, and commercial property will increase tenfold, thus generating additional tax revenues for the city.

Attention is also given to green and recreational areas. An example is the promenade along the Moskva River, Neskuchny Garden and Gorky Park, where many Moscovite families can be seen walking, biking or picnicking on Sundays.

According to a Western businessman living in Moscow for the past 24 years, while in the 2000s Moscow was a very congested, cumbersome and quite unsafe city, it is now a pleasant city to live in – at least in the city center.

The business climate has also much improved, especially through the decrease of the corruption (which was massive in the 1990s and 2000s), the improvement of the city’s administrative services and the incentives offered by the city. The above quoted businessman stressed the dramatic change of posture from the city’s administration, which moved from a “problem-maker” to be avoided at all costs 20 years ago, to a very efficient and helping body for the past 5 years – it even commits to maximum waiting times in responding or providing documents, down to 15 minutes waiting-time only for some cases, and providing free coffee when the waiting time is above those 15 minutes ! Some Western companies which have invested heavily in Russia in the past 20 years are now reaping the benefits. Siemens is one of them, through the joint ventures it settled in railways and turbines. Not only the Russian market is interesting per se, Russia can also be a worldwide competitive place for production, even competing with China : the Spanish sanitary equipment maker Rocca acquired and upgraded 5 factories in the past years, and now exports 30% of its Russian production.

Lastly the participation of citizens seems to be on the rise.  The “Active Citizen” platform is full of comments from the inhabitants who are invited to make suggestions and report problems to be solved by the city, such as faulty equipment – and from what we saw on the platform, the speed of intervention seems to be much better than in Paris !

What enabled this impressive transformation ?

The first factor explaining this transformation is the political decisiveness. Not only the mayor Sobianin in place since 2010 has a very ambitious program, he is also supported financially and politically by the central government, including President Putin himself. The Russian political elite wants to show the world that Moscow can compete with other megacities in the world. In such competition they manage to lure some high-profile politicians from other countries to work for the development of Moscow, as is the case for the French politician Maurice Leroy, a former French City Minister who is now an adviser to mayor Sobianin and one of the organizers of the Urban Forum, a worldwide event about urbanism that will take place in Moscow’s new Zaradie Park in July 2019 and feature several worldwide famous political and business personalities involved in urbanism[2].

The strong political decisiveness is combined with significant financial power. Not only can the city rely on growing tax revenues from a rapidly increasing population and booming enterprise activity. As a federal city it can also receive subsidies from the federal government. As around 50% of Russian oil and gas companies are state-owned[3] the subsidies derived from those hefty revenues can conceivably be a big contributor to the financing of mega projects in Moscow. Lastly the buoyant economic activity in Moscow may also be favored by the current relative weakness of the ruble that makes Russia a competitive country, which in turn attracts foreign investors who are also lured by tax incentives from the government[4].

Should Moscow be a model for other cities ?

There are however several warnings which make me think that Moscow’s current development model is not sustainable and should not inspire other cities. Firstly the above mentioned statement that “Moscow is now a pleasant city to live in” is probably not shared by many of its citizens. Due to the concentration of jobs in the city center and the extent of the attractiveness zone of Moscow, even beyond the Moscow Metropolitan Area (see above), most people must commute long trips daily, such commuting trip being up to 3 hours each way for those 8 million people who live out of the Moscow Ring Road (MKAD) ! So granted, the past years’ improvement in the situation for car traffic and public transport is very impressive, however it was probably overdue and will need to continue at a high rhythm in the next years in order to cope with the steady growth of the city.

Secondly there is a huge imbalance between Moscow and the rest of the country. With only 0.2% of the surface it hosts 14% of the population of Russia and holds more than 25% of its GDP[5]. When it comes to budget, one of our lecturer stated that Moscow may absorb up to 80% of the federal budget. The hyper concentration of economic activity in Moscow seems even to be on the rise since the 1990s, as the share of Moscow in Russia for employment was 7.4% in 1993[6]. The second city of the country, St Petersbourg, is much smaller with 5 million inhabitants and its GDP is 3 times less than Moscow’s. This imbalance may rightly be related to the political tradition of centralized government and top-down governance, which has been characteristic of the Soviet era and has actually survived even today, where municipalities have very limited delegation of power from the regions or the federal government, and consequently no financial autonomy[7].  All attempts from the federal government to decentralize the country have been managed in a top-down way and have failed so far. The government may have realized very recently that it should change its method. It has adopted a new spatial development strategy in February 2019 which is based on a bottom-up approach, however it remains to be seen if this will prompt any real initiative and concrete results[8].

Environment is another subject that sheds doubts over Moscow as a model city. Environment should definitely be a cause for concern in Moscow, due to its rapid growth and to the Soviet industrial “heritage”. Strangely we did not hear about it from our lecturers, which seems to indicate that the issue is barely considered.

The last reason for challenging Moscow’s development model is the mixed feelings about whether it really serves primarily the interests of the citizens, or whether private interests take precedence. An article from the European Planning Studies[9] is worrying in this regard, although in dates back from 2000 and one could argue that the situation has changed since. In this paper the authors examine two large projects that have been built in the 1990s, namely the Manezh Square shopping development and the rebuilding of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral and the planned construction of “Moscow City” or MIBC (Moscow International Business Center), which has now been realized (we visited it during our bus tour). The authors conclude that i) those projects primarily obeyed private interests or ideology, and ii) legal, environmental or cost considerations had been overlooked to the detriment of the citizens, as these projects were never intended to be profitable (in the case of the Manezh Square) and do not serve the interest of the Moscovites nor improve their daily lives.

As a conclusion, what we should grasp from the Moscovite example is the unique political decisiveness and determination that allowed very big projects to be implemented in a record time. The true political motives, and whether the citizens are really the winners, is however questionable. The intriguing thing anyway is that Moscow itself seems to stick to its own model of development and not take best practices from other cities in the world.


[1] Lecture on the Moscow Transport System, Sergei Maltcev, J’son & Partners Consulting, on 4th June 2019 in Moscow

[2] Maurice Leroy, du Grand Paris au Grand Moscou, Les Echos, 28th June 2019

[3] Lecture on Energy Sector in the Russian Federation, Safonova T. Yu., PhD in Economics, Associate Professor, on 12th June in Moscow

[4] Group discussion with Peter, a Belgian-German businessman living in Moscow for the past 24 years, 11th June, Moscow

[5] Lecture on Spatial Planning and Urban Governance in Russia, by Sergei Maltcev, on 4th June 2019 in Moscow

[6] The economic restructuring of Moscow in the international context, O. Gritsai, GeoJournal, 1997

[7] Lecture on Saint Petersburg local governance by Ivanova M.V., PhD in Economics, Associate Professor, on 4th June 2019 in Saint Petersburg

[8] Lecture on Spatial Development Strategy, by Dr. Kirill Teteryatnikov, Full Member of International Academy of Management, Counselor, Institute of Vnesheconombank (VEB.RF), Head of Independent Consulting Group, on 14th June in Moscow

[9] Thanos Paganis & Andy Thornley, Urban Development Projects in Moscow : Market / State Relations in the New Russia, European Planning Studies, July 2010

This piece is the original writing of the author(s). The view points in the post is the author’s personal opinions and do not reflect IGLUS/EPFL’s viewpoints. The author(s) is the sole responsible person regarding the accuracy of the information presented in the post and will be liable for any potential copyright infringements.

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