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Commuter Chaos In Turkmen Capital As Ashgabat 'Goes Green' For Two Weeks

Cyclists gather in front of a 30-meter monument to cycling, which has become an important component of state propaganda promoting a healthy lifestyle, in Ashgabat in June 2020.
Cyclists gather in front of a 30-meter monument to cycling, which has become an important component of state propaganda promoting a healthy lifestyle, in Ashgabat in June 2020.

ASHGABAT -- The authorities in Turkmenistan's capital have temporarily restricted traffic in an effort to give its nearly 900,000 residents a two-week respite from the growing air-pollution problem.

Beginning on May 10, most private vehicles have been banned from the streets and residents have been advised to use public transport. Some Ashgabat streets are off-limits to cars, with exceptions for government vehicles.

Turkmen media reported that city residents support the campaign, which is part of measures to mark Ashgabat's 140th anniversary this month. But while many residents might agree with the campaign's environmental benefits, they also complain of poor planning that they say is severely disrupting their lives.

With the ban on cars, passenger numbers on public transport have skyrocketed. But no additional buses or bus routes were added to handle the increase. Ashgabat's public transport system consists only of bus and minibus services.

Citing local residents, RFE/RL correspondents in Ashgabat say those vehicles are struggling to cope with the sudden spike.

The overcrowding has led to confrontations and arguments among passengers vying for space, the correspondents say. The situation is particularly acute for tens of thousands of commuters during the morning and evening rush hours.

Multiple people told RFE/RL they'd been late to work due to a shortage of buses. They spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from the authorities in the strictly controlled Central Asian state.

Residents are also being encouraged to walk or cycle to work whenever possible. But there are not many bike lanes in the city. With dawn-to-dusk fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- and temperatures reaching 30 degrees Celsius -- many people in the Muslim-majority country found it hard to walk several kilometers to work.

Meanwhile, taxi fares have risen sharply along with demand and competition for rides, Ashgabat residents complain. One local resident told RFE/RL on May 12 that a 15-minute taxi ride from her home in the city's 30th district to the Optom Bazaar shopping mall normally costs about $4. "But on the first day of the campaign, the price for the same route rose to about $14," she said.

Medical Chaos

The green campaign has also disrupted ambulance services amid uncertainty over whether such emergency vehicles can freely move in all areas of the city.

In several cases documented by RFE/RL, patients who contacted emergency services were told that the ambulances couldn't reach them. The patients were advised to contact nearby medical facilities instead. They included a diabetic patient who never received the medical attention that he needed.

In some cases, patients were told that ambulances were only allowed to operate outside normal business hours, starting at 8 p.m.

The shortage of public transport has prompted some patients to cancel scheduled medical appointments. The Center for Neurological Diseases was almost entirely empty on May 11, after officials said many patients postponed visits until after the green campaign ends.

Some cafe and restaurant owners say their businesses have been disrupted without vehicles to deliver fresh supplies. Residents also complain that the authorities have failed to provide clear and timely information about the details of the campaign, to allow city residents and businesses to prepare for it.

The green campaign concludes on May 25 with public celebrations to mark City Day.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondents in Ashgabat

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