Nicusor Dan: The mild-mannered maths researcher who wants to save Bucharest from corruption

Bucharest's anti-corruption campaigner and mayoral candidate Nicursor Dan, his files behind him. Image: Michael Bird.

Behind Nicusor Dan, a 45 year-old with a doctorate in mathematics, is a wire shelf piled with hundreds of files.

These are cases Dan and his team from the NGO Save Bucharest! have brought against the mayor, the council, investors and other leading figures in Romania’s capital. Over 300 dossiers challenge unauthorised buildings, dodgy planning permission and the demolition of antique buildings.

Dan has spent a decade as the nemesis of Bucharest city hall, using the law to expose sleazy local politics. For much of this time, the authorities squeezed bribes from the population for permits to build whatever they wanted, ushering in a period of construction anarchy that deformed this urban centre.

As Dan says, it was, “An anarchy which comes from corruption”. In the years 2007 and 2008, Dan says, 50 per cent of planning approvals were illegal. Romania is now carrying out investigations to prove official bribery was endemic.

Interviews from these probes reveal the cost of unrestricted development. If an owner wanted planning permission to build another floor, for example, this required a bribe of €10,000-30,000. To build on green space cost around €10,000; a shopping centre €250,000.


Such claims saw the mayor of Bucharest, a city of 2m people, face arrest. Sorin Oprescu – a medical doctor and recipient of France’s prestigious Légion d’Honneur – was alleged to have taken money from contractors who won public tenders. 

Last September Romania’s fearless Anti-Corruption Department caught Oprescu picking up a €25,000 cash bribe in the middle of the night.

There is a systemic problem with public contracts. And Dan, a decorated maths genius, has been running the numbers.

About 15 per cent of the €1.9bn budget held by the city and its six boroughs – around €300 million Euro – is lost to corruption, he argues. Mainly this is through backhanders in the public procurement process.

But in local elections in June next year, Dan aims to seize the office he has fought for years. He’s flipped his NGO into a party, The Save Bucharest Union, which will stand in the city’s six boroughs.

“No map of city ownership”

Dan is dressed in a tight blue suit jacket and light blue shirt, his vest peeping out from an open collar. A full layer of stubble reveals he hasn’t shaved for at least a day. Currently, he works as a researcher in a state institute specialising in number theory and algebraic geometry, continuing the work of the doctorate he completed in Paris.

His dishevelled appearance is combined with a scientific mind, constantly juggling the weight of his aims with the practicality of their execution.

Firstly, Dan wants to shine the glare of transparency on the City Hall’s activities.

“There is no land map of city ownership,” he explains, “only a list of owners who pay taxes. There is no map of all the postal codes in Bucharest – only a map of the streets.”

A typical Bucharest street corner. Image: Michael Bird.

This vague representation of the city and its ownership means it is hard to make public policy, to know where to build council houses or nursery schools or find spaces for cars.

Dan then pulls out a giant five-inch thick paper folder, tied up with string and slams it down on the table. Inside are thousands of loose photocopied pages. “I would like to present to you the city budget,” he says.

Inside are numbers, tables, contracts and invoices. “To find information is almost impossible unless you are the economic director of the mayor’s office,” he adds.

Dan wants all public contracts to be made visible online, so that the public can click through all spending by local government.

“Assassinated by traffic”

Bucharest is a dense city of high-rises, and tormented by congestion and pollution. The urban form was designed to support a Communist model of public transportation – but the shift to capitalism has seen private car ownership explode, while local government scrambles for ways to accommodate motorists. Half of Bucharest’s ring-road only has one lane. “The city is assassinated by traffic,” says Dan, who aims to expand this ring-road to ease jams in the centre.

The public transport system is hardly a model of efficiency. There are no maps or timetables on bus stops. The only indication that a bus stop exists is a rusty sign, often battered by the elements or invisible behind wires and tree branches. “We need predictable times for buses and bus lanes.”

After that, Dan intends to tackle the city’s most visible blight – thousands of cars parked on pavements. It is near impossible to push a pram or a wheelchair along Bucharest’s streets without hitting a vehicle, meaning half a walk to the local supermarket can take place in the middle of the road.


But this will not be the priority. “If we try and take all the cars off the street first, there will be a revolt,” says Dan.

Many citizens drive between home, work and the shopping mall without interacting with the city. It functions more like an American suburb than a densely populated European urban centre.

“Bucharest is a town of cars where people do not conceive of walking with pleasure,” Dan says. This has led to a fragmentation of the city.

By way of example, he points to the city’s 200,000 students, who tend to live and work entirely on campus. “Bucharest is a university town where you do not see students. The city doesn’t profit from this.”

And this is Dan’s big idea – reclaiming the capital as a regional hub for learning and enterprise.

At present the city’s central Dambovita river is clogged with advertisements hanging above, and the homeless sleeping below, bridges – an allegory for the city’s disparities in wealth and the authorities’ philosophy that public space means media space.

Dan’s big idea is developing wastelands and underused open space along an “axis of creativity” that straddles the Dambovita. It’ll link libraries, university campuses and lecture halls with businesses, including free offices for start-ups.

Nicusor Dan wants to throw this out to international urban planners. Bucharest is one of the few European capitals which has huge opportunities for architects. Its vacant lots and lack of listed buildings make the space the ideal playground for an inventive design firm.

“We don’t want to be known as the city which kills dogs”

In the past, Bucharest has won an international reputation for its stray dogs. Numbering in the tens of thousands, these packs of mongrels were mainly bred or abandoned in the suburbs, and wandered into the city to sniff out food from trash cans and soft-hearted citizens.

But the outgoing mayor Sorin Oprescu almost solved this problem by rounding them up in heavily-guarded vehicles and transporting the canines to an industrial facility. There, after two weeks, they were massacred.

Stray dogs in a playground in Bucharest. Image: AFP/Getty.

Nicusor Dan is against using a law which allows the murder of stray dogs 14 days after their capture.

“It is a humanitarian question and one of civilisation,” he says. “it’s also a question of the reputation of a city. We are in a global competition of cities – and we don’t want to be known as the city which kills dogs.”

The solution for him is shelters, and a comprehensive program for adoption, which doesn’t exist at present. “No one ever went to the source of the problem of the dogs.” This means a carrot-and-stick offer to residents, especially on the periphery of the city, to fine those who throw dogs on the streets and offer free sterilisation for their animals.

 “More people will die”

A major threat to the city is an earthquake. Thanks to its location on an area of seismic activity, quakes bigger than 7 on the Richter Scale are predicted every 50 years. In 1977, 1,400 people died when buildings collapsed in a massive earthquake. If another of this magnitude were to happen tomorrow, Dan predicts “more people will be dead”.

Many of those buildings constructed in the 1920s and 1930s are sensitive to tremors. These buildings, which Dan says were “on their knees” following the quake in 1977, remain in the same state today. Around 350 of them are classified as high risk, of which only 26 have been renovated safely; over 1,000 more are considered a potential threat. Dan wants to unlock Government funds to restore these buildings and compel owners to comply with restoration. 


But can one man change an endemically corrupt system? When asked whether the city’s apparatus would be too powerful for him to transform, Dan argues: “I blocked investments of tens of millions of Euro in trials. There were very powerful investors who wanted to build on parks and I stopped them.”

Dan already stood for mayor in 2012, winning 8.5 per cent of the vote. Now he’s declaring his candidacy early, appearing on television to try and set the agenda for the election: pro-transparency and anti-corruption.

Two major parties dominate the Romanian political scene: the Social Democrats (PSD), who hold the government (and whose leader, Victor Ponta, resigned this morning following protests over a nightclub fire); and the National Liberals (PNL), whose representative, Klaus Iohannis, is President.

Dan does not rule out an alliance with a political party – but it probably won’t be the PSD, which he calls “profoundly corrupt”. “It would be ideal to win without allies,” he says, “but if to become mayor we need to make an alliance, we would make a rational decision.”

An alliance is possible, he says, if it means a more rapid route to creating more transparency. But would this not wreck his position as an anti-system candidate?

Dan pauses. He bites his lip slightly and, for a moment, it looks as though he is not going to answer the question. But then I realise, this is a man who wants to be careful in what he says, and the manner in which it can be interpreted, but who knows that he is not able to lie.

“I did not become the mayor to put this on my CV,” he says. “I have spent ten years fighting for the city. Not for myself.”

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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