Is Bucharest ready for the earthquake that could kill thousands of its citizens?

Bucharest's Palace of the Parliament. Image: Getty.

Bucharest, Romania. Welcome to Europe’s most earthquake-prone city, where tremors are commonplace and the next big earthquake looms large for its residents – but where many lack the financial or logistical means of moving out to safer accommodation.

A brief walk around Romania’s capital today, particularly Centru Veche (Old Town), and you’ll notice numerous buildings sporting circular red plaques about the size of manhole covers. These signify a “Class 1 risk”: buildings likely to collapse in the event of an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or higher.

An earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale in 1977 rendered over 1,000 buildings in the city in a critical condition, injuring up to 11,000 people and leaving the capital in a war-like state. Since then, some 374 buildings, with a total 2,700 apartments, have been officially classified as Class I risk by the authorities. Of the Class I buildings, 184 pose a public threat. 


The earthquakes that hit the region tend to have their epicentre in the nearby Vrancea Mountains, the most seismically active area of Romania. Quakes of over 7.0 in magnitude struck in 1908, 1940, and 1977 – in other words, one every 35 years or so. Thirty-eight years have passed since the last big one.

In the wake of October’s deadly Colectiv Club fire, which was caused by pyrotechnics and which killed 62, authorities have highlighted the danger the city faces from seismic activity. Many Bucharest buildings open to the public –nightclubs, bars, medical facilities, galleries, banks – that are deemed a Class I seismic risk are facing closure until they’ve been “consolidated” (that is, building work done to eliminate the most significant risks). 

“The stock of old houses with high seismic risk is constituted by buildings erected between 1870s and 1940s,” says Valentin Mandache, an expert and consultant on Romania’s historic houses, as well as a former seismologist. “These already went through a few catastrophic earthquakes in that time. Most of the historic houses will suffer medium to serious damage, with an important number of them flattened down in rubble, producing victims.”

He adds: “The interwar apartment houses and blocks are at most risk of sudden collapse.”

Bucharest residents wait for a bus in front of communist-era apartment blocks. Image: Getty.

 

Renting these risky apartments can be up to a third cheaper, and there’s no shortage of tenants willing to take the risk. I was one of them, but eventually moved out for fear of being sandwiched between the third and fifth floor should the quake strike.

Amalia Nicoliata, a resident renting a red-spot apartment, says: “[I moved in] because it was very close to the city centre and pretty cheap, which is the dream when searching for apartments.

“I've known all along about the risk,” she adds. “I mean it's pretty obvious when you see the building itself, I actually love my apartment, but of course, if I had the opportunity, I would swiftly move to a safer place.”

At what cost?

If tragedy is to be averted when the next big earthquake hits, it will be an expensive affair consolidating the hundreds of vulnerable and dilapidated buildings. However, it would save potentially thousands of lives and some of Bucharest’s unique heritage architecture. 

The majority of Bucharest period buildings were erected within the last two hundred years, so many of them have already been hit by at least two major earthquakes, in both 1940 and 1977. In addition to the Class 1 buildings there are also in excess of 300 buildings considered Class 2 seismic risk: that means they are unlikely to collapse, but likely to suffer serious structural damage.


“The most tragic loss, apart from the loss of life, will be that of the architectural heritage,2 says Mandache. “The historic architecture is the most visible identity marker of a community. Bucharest stands to lose immensely from its character and identity in the case of a big earthquake.”

The property bubble of last decade did little to encourage people to consolidate. Even buildings tagged with a red-spot were sometimes on the market for notably high prices. Private owners, professional property developers and consultants all overlooked risk to turn a quick profit; while many landlords renting out properties simply took down the red spots in the hope of not devaluing their stock.

Apart from the seismic classification scheme, the government has done little to decrease risk. Mandache believes this is due to myriad of factors: “Lack of political will, low civic pride among the inhabitants, corruption at all levels, inefficient allocation of funds, terrible administrative hurdles, stifling bureaucracy, and an inefficient organisation of Bucharest's administration.” 

Many tens of thousands took to the city’s streets after the recent nightclub fire, as people mourned the wasted lives and the taste of a lazy democracy rife with corruption. Their chants were not specific to party or politician. They had a louder and more demanding message: “Coruptia Ucide”. Corruption kills. 

Mourner's light candles for the victims of last October's Bucharest nightclub fire. Image: AFP/Getty.

Even before the fire, civic society was already riled by the death of a 28-year-old policeman, who hit a pothole while assisting interior minister Gabriel Oprea’s motorcade. After disputing the legality of motorcades in low visibility conditions and rain, hundreds took to the streets calling for Oprea’s resignation.


One of the terms of Romania’s ascension into the EU in 2007, some eight years ago now, was that it would put an end to corruption, which reaches all levels of society. In recent years the country has made purging high-level corruption a major issue, with investigations driven by a specialised agency, the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Among the illustrious crop of DNA’s indicted have been dozens of mayors, five members of parliament, two ex-ministers, seven judges and 13 prosecutors, and a former prime minister, Adrian Nastase (2000-2004). Last year alone DNA convicted 1,138 individual – more than 90 per cent of those indicted.

Colectiv Club had insufficient safety measures in place. Yet it was granted its permit by the mayor of Bucharest’s Sector 4, Cristian Popescu Piedone, who resigned several days after the fire following pressure from civic society and President Klaus Iohannis.

If any good is to come from Romania’s deadliest fire, perhaps it will be that the authorities’ passive attitude towards public danger will change. And it might just be in time to avert a second, far greater national tragedy that is simply waiting to happen.

Quick, like us on Facebook – while stocks last!

 
 
 
 

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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook