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.”


Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.


The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.

Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  


A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.