Ring Road Puts Moscow in the Fast Lane

On a dusky evening last week, Grigory Sazhin was driving his ambulance on the Moscow Ring Road when a man's figure suddenly emerged from the twilight in front of him.

"All I saw was a flash and then- boom! - he was lying dead on the ground," Sazhin said. "We couldn't tell which side he had run from or offer him any first aid. It was too late." Just 200 meters away, a brand-new pedestrian bridge stretched over the highway's 10 lanes of high-speed traffic.

The Moscow city government completed its ambitious four-year reconstruction of the Moskovskaya Koltsevaya Avtomobilnaya Doroga, also known as the MKAD or Outer Ring, in the fall of 1998.

Before that remont, fatal accidents were so common that the MKAD was dubbed "the road of death." Today, it is the most modern and safe highway in the country. But the change proved far too quick for drivers and pedestrians. They have not yet adjusted their thinking or behavior to take into account the new realities of the MKAD - which in 1994 was a dark, narrow, potholed road infamous for head-on collisions, but today is 10 lanes of smooth, high-speed asphalt.

"All conceivable engineering solutions have been implemented to provide safety on the road," said Alexander Skorodelov, head of a special traffic police unit in charge of patrolling the MKAD. "Man himself remains a problem all the same."

The MKAD was built in the days of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, but it was not until 1994 that Moscow authorities moved to add lights and a concrete barrier to separate the two double lanes of traffic. By 1998, the 109-kilometer loop was generously lit and expanded to five lanes in each direction, with 42 modern roundabouts and 55 underground passages or overhead bridges for pedestrians.

"It's the most modern road in Europe," said Gennady Muravin, director of Organizator, the construction firm hired by the city government to carry out the renovation.

Muravin is one of the only people who would even hazard a guess at what the MKAD renovation cost. The Moscow city government press service could not provide a figure. And even Muravin was not quite sure of the math. He somewhat hesitantly estimated the total cost of the project at 18 billion rubles - which would have been a staggering $3 billion at exchange rates prevailing before the crisis.

Today, Muscovites appreciate the MKAD as a speedy way of getting from one end of the town to the other. It bypasses central arteries - which are often clogged by hundreds of thousands of Moscow's 2.1 million cars - and the police boast that it is free of traffic jams no matter what the weather or time of day. A vehicle traveling 60 kilometers an hour can complete the entire loop around Moscow in less than 50 minutes.

And it is safer. Accidents have dropped by 50 percent since the renovation, and, Skorodelov says, the MKAD has on average 1.5 times fewer accidents than even the Garden Ring - which carries less traffic.

The overhead pedestrian bridges opened in September, and since then fewer and fewer pedestrians are flirting with death by sprinting across all 10 lanes of traffic. Eight jaywalkers were killed in accidents while attempting to cross the MKAD in the first two months of this year, but last year 22 died over that same period.

Even so, the traffic police remain frustrated by MKAD jaywalkers - the police refer to them with gallows humor as "death-row candidates" - and are forever searching for new ways to discourage them.

One measure being considered is the construction of additional 4-meter-high sound-proof walls, which line the MKAD in those residential areas it cuts through. In addition to keeping in the noise of traffic, the walls keep out animals, drunks and pedestrians in a reckless hurry to cross.

Along those same lines, Skorodelov is also toying with the idea of topping the barrier dividing the two directions of MKAD traffic with a 2-meter metal net. Yes, it could be easily climbed by some, but Skorodelov believes it might be just enough of a deterrent.

"[The MKAD] is psychologically hard to cross," he mused. "It's a hurdle race: cross five lanes of heavy traffic, jump, cross another five."

Meanwhile, Russians continue to display rare courage, or bad judgment, in the name of economizing a few minutes on their daily commutes. On a recent Tuesday, a crowd piled out of a bus at the intersection of the MKAD and Dmitrovskoye Shosse in northeastern Moscow. Ignoring a bridge built right next to the bus stop, a small group of shoppers moved straight across the river of zooming cars to one of 14 wholesale markets on the other side of the MKAD.

If anyone is using the underpasses happily, it's packs of stray dogs, says Andrei Solovyov, chief forester at the Losiny Ostrov national park. The MKAD cuts through the park, and two tunnels have been built under the road for moose, deer and wild boars.

There have been virtually no such large animals killed on the MKAD in recent years, but Solovyov said that's because dacha towns along the road keep them from crossing - not because they are using the tunnels. Instead, stray dogs do, which prompts Solovyov to opine wryly that the tunnels are more trouble than they are worth.

The MKAD traffic police have set up nine brand-new posts equipped with computer speed-control centers along the highway. Unlike the usual Russian road police post, these are large, heated and comfortable inside.

Computers and cameras monitor select stretches of the MKAD, taking pictures of those cars - and their drivers - who exceed the speed limits, which range from 60 kilometers an hour to 100 kilometers an hour.

"[Motorists] are always trying to tell you that 'yes, the car in the picture is mine, but I was driving 60, not 120 kilometers an hour,'" laughed Viktor Kovrin, chief inspector at post 9-78. On average, people tend to exceed whatever speed limit is established by 20 kilometers an hour, he said.

Once they find themselves on a large, smooth highway, motorists relieved to be free of downtown's traffic jams step on the gas almost instinctively. Some 7,000 drivers have been ticketed for speeding over the first two months of 1999. Many of them aren't even slightly deterred by the official fines, the highest of which is 240 rubles. They pay the traffic police readily - and often excessively and off the record - and go on racing.