Russia’s Roads to Nowhere, or: build Railways instead!

Though it’s not quite true that Russia has “no roads, only directions”, the old saying isn’t far off the mark. The World Bank’s recent report on Russia’s economy notes that the Eurasian giant’s road network is primitive and crumbling, coming in 111th in a global ranking (the railway system does much better at 33rd); more than half its highways do not meet minimum riding quality requirements. None of this should come as a big surprise to anyone who has had the pleasure* of driving beyond Moscow’s MKAD.

One of the main gripes of Russia’s limousine liberal opposition is the low priority the Kremlin places on the country’s road development – according to Boris Nemtsov, the rate of road construction during the Putin era fell by two or three times relative to the Yeltsin years (these figures don’t tally well with the official statistics but whatever). My intention here isn’t to wrestle over numbers and details in an attempt to either vindicate or condemn Putinism, instead I am going to consider a far more fundamental question: is it really worth Russia’s while to invest limited resources in a high-entropy system with no future that will furthermore accentuate socio-economic divisions in the short-term?

First, there is the imminent reality of peak oil. World oil resources are finite and there is evidence suggesting that production peaked globally in 2005 or 2008 (depending how you measure it), and that Russia will peak sometime between now and 2015. While Russia will continue extracting plenty of surplus to satisfy its own needs, is there really a need to use its energy proceeds to expand a transport system that will soak up ever more domestic oil production? Surely there are better uses for this revenue, such as improving its abysmal energy efficiency, refurbishing the creaking R&D system or even just getting more foreign currency? Eventually, of course, Russia’s oil production surplus too will dwindle and vanish: thereafter, its high-entropy road system, with its long asphalt serpents and wheeled metallic gas boxes, will decay into mud tracks and rust carcasses, and then into mere directions in the deepnesses of Eurasia. (Another thing that bears mentioning is that rising Russian domestic oil consumption will make the collapse of oil availability in the deficit countries that much more rapid due to the dynamics of the Export Land Model).

Aren’t I ignoring alternate automobile energy sources, such as hydrogen and electric? I don’t buy much into the optimistic prognoses. Due to its fundamental problems with energy wastage, storage and infrastructure deficit – suffice to say, you need about one liquid hydrogen truck per twenty vehicles compared to one gas truck per two hundred – hydrogen is unlikely to ever displace hydrocarbons on the mass scale needed to preserve automative culture in its heyday form. Electrics have relatively better prospects, but they remain several times more expensive than conventional cars: though battery technology is improving rapidly, the availability of the Rare Earth Metals used to make them is moving in the opposite direction. In short, both hydrogen and electrics are far more structurally energy-inefficient and hence expensive than today’s hydrocarbons; as soon as shortages drive oil prices into the stratosphere, widespread vehicle use by the middle classes will retreat into history. Why should Russia even embark on this road to nowhere?

Second, it should be stressed that even as of 2008, there were only about 210 automobiles for every 1000 Russians, compared to 500-700 in the developed countries. If the Russian state were to fund a world-class highways system, like the American interstates or the German Autobahnen, their benefits would only be immediately enjoyed by perhaps a third of the population (its more affluent part). While this would no doubt be welcomed by the likes of Boris Nemtsov, a pro-bourgeois shill who bemoans Russia’s maternity benefits because they increase fertility amongst the poor, and by Yulia Latynina, who decries democracy for allowing poor people to vote, I fail to see how this would improve the lot of Russia’s marginalized and pensioners. Viewed from this prism, the Russian government’s decision during the economic crisis to increase social benefits – including a 30% rise in pensions this year – is far more socially just than taking the World Bank’s suggestion to increase road infrastructure investment.

Instead of subsidizing the already prosperous bourgeoisie off the state’s lard, Russia would be far better served leaving the road infrastructure to market forces. First, they are subject to less graft and waste. State contracting for road-building is riddled with corruption, even by Russian standards: around half to two thirds of allocated funds can be expected to get “lost”. Second, where heavy demand exists, private companies build toll roads (e.g. the Moscow to St.-Petersburg route). These are already sprouting where traffic flows are heavy and are of much better quality than the state projects. Only people who use these private roads will have to pay for their upkeep, instead of the all-Russian taxpayer. Likewise, where there is little demand for roads, such as the symbolic but unprofitable trans-Siberian route, capitalists will not waste capital.

Third, Russia’s geography itself hardly befits an auto-faring civilization. The cold climate, seasonal melting and vast distances make upkeep difficult and costly, even if it weren’t weighed down by corruption. The vastnesses of northern Eurasia are far better suited to railways, whose operation is inherently cheaper and cleaner. Unlike automobiles, railway fares are affordable to ordinary pensioners and the indigent. Encouragingly, investment into Russian railways is very substantial and there are plans for a high-speed rail link between Moscow and St.-Petersburg and other high-traffic routes.

In the US, the automative age got kickstarted in the 1950’s, when oil prices were low, affluence was rising fast and the US government financed the Interstate for military purposes. In turn, this project gave an impetus to the growth of a suburbia that now forms the core of its service economy. However, as Howard Kunstler and others have pointed out, it is an economy with no future: critically dependent on concentrated energy sources to support a high-entropy, unsustainable and soulless lifestyle, and one that only continues to be subsidized under the political pressure born of the “psychology of previous investments”. This is not a road Russia should aspire to travel, regardless of the superficial attraction of the American suburban idyll. It is a spiritual cemetery, and soon to become an economic one too**.

* Not being ironic here, BTW. Driving in Russia is far more fun than in any European country (with the possible exception of Germany’s limitless speed Autobahnen). I’m a thrill-seeker that way.

** I’m also highly skeptical of the usefulness of India’s expansion of its Golden Quadrilateral, for a nation where mass car ownership is non-existent and unlikely to ever materialize and which doesn’t even have metro systems in most of its biggest cities. Likewise for China, though at least its railway plans are appropriately gargantuan and ambitious.

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