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Save Sofia (Спаси София), in the words of its members, is “the most annoying and the noisiest organization” in the capital city of Bulgaria. This civic initiative is active since 2009 in drawing public attention to the issues of the drop in the usage of public transportation, the lack of proper bicycling infrastructure, the overdevelopment, waste management, and other domains of urban maintenance. Save Sofia offers ideas, organizes protests and discussions, writes petitions, and communicates with authorities and experts. At the “International conference on the urban night: Governance, Diversity, Mobility” hosted by Sofia University the co-founder and key member of Save Sofia, Gergin Borisov, presented one of the most recent achievements of the organization: the introduction of night bus system consisting of four lines. The day after that, Gergin took participants of the conference on informal excursion around the city centre, commenting on contradictory and often insufficient measures the authorities undertake to improve urban spaces. Just before the excursion we talked with him about the thorny path to that novelty and what Minsk might learn from it — to Gergin’s surprise (and our sorrow), the Belarusian capital city, unlike Kyiv, Moscow, St. Petersburg and all of the EU capitals (except Tallinn) does not have any public transportation at night. Questions by Andrey Vozyanov.

Who has brought the topic of night transport to Spasi Sofia?

Actually, when Spasi Sofia was established, we had the keynote presentation where we introduced five areas that Sofia considerably lacks in comparison to other cities, and night transport was one of them. Most of our members used to either travel actively or live abroad and returned to live in Bulgaria, so we got a chance to see a lot of Europe and draw both inspiration and experience from the successes and failures of Europe’s best cities. Also, we had a lot of insight on what Sofia did wrong in its’ previous attempts on introducing night transport in Sofia, so we decided that it has to be a focus point for us to work on.

Were the other points also connected to transportation?

Yes, apart from night transport we proposed the introduction of an integrated transfer ticket that would be valid for a period of time and not per single trip as it is now. Sofia has struggled for more than 12 years now to introduce one, but so far there is no political will to get the job done. Among the other suggestions was a tourist pass encompassing public transport, museums and other venues, and a package of measures for achieving substantial increase of the average speed of public transport. For example, in Budapest tram tracks are segregated from car lanes with concrete panels, shaped as semi spherical bumps, discouraging drivers to enter the tram tracks thus slowing them down. We wanted to introduce them here. Our survey on the average speed of tram lines in Sofia places them at the bottom of the list in Europe, at about 10 km/h. (As Gergin told later, Sofia also has a largest amount of taxicabs per capita among EU capitals)

In your presentation you were showing a lot of different statistical data. Where do you get it? Are they publicly available or you had to contact institutions?

These were data that we collected ourselves, because Sofia Urban Mobility Center (the public transport authority) does not collect data on ridership. The unofficial reason is that the number of people that travel without ticket is very high in Sofia. And the efficiency of fare evasion control is very lackluster, so they do not bother with collecting data. The last time they actually counted where and how people go to, and how they use public transport was in 2014. The last count showed a drastic drop in public ridership, so going public with that data will only contextualize the failure of the Municipality to offer an adequate transport service. So we build a very extensive survey, with more than thirty questions. We published it on our Facebook page and asked people to fill it in. We already had a general idea of what the line routes should be in order to cover the largest amount of people with least deviation from the most popular day time lines and we wanted to test them against the actual needs of night travelers. And we asked our followers — if this night public transport existed today, would you use it? Where would you use it to? Would you find it useful? What are your destinations and how many times will you transfer between lines to reach them? Where do you go out at night? When do you go out? When do you come home? And, given that you don’t have night public transport now, how do you travel? We divided the information in two similar sets of questions: one for workers that work at night, and another for people who go out at night for fun. So we wanted people to fill the data on two aspects of their nightlife. And the data revealed that there is a huge overlap between the time when people go out both for fun and for work, and when they go home. We saw that the least busy hours, which is something that most night systems share, are between 2 AM and 3 AM. The busiest time slots turned out to be the first two hours after the day transport ended and the two hours prior to its first operation hour. The survey also showed that there is a considerable difference between the destinations sought after at day and at night. That indicated that a simple extension of the working hours of the day transport will not properly serve the city. That combined with the “rush” hour and the observed overlap between work and leisure travels justifies the existence of a proper and functional night transport system with its’ own route system.

Did you collect data only online?

Primarily yes, plus we printed the query and gave it to service workers, such as waiters, hygienists etc. Many companies have actually shared the survey list in their internal networks. We actually had employers that contacted us and said: “You know what, if that system was operating, I would prefer not to cover my employees’ taxi fares, I’d rather raise their paychecks.” It would be very interesting to actually make the economic comparison prior the introduction of the night transport and one year later and check how and where did the night economy revitalize. After the global recession in 2008, many 24/7 cafes and restaurants closed and nightlife drastically shrunk as a result. Many establishments either started closing at 11pm, or disappeared entirely. But a recent article in Capital.bg (a newspaper focused on economy) said that the night economy of Sofia is increasing since the introduction of night transport: there is more activity, there are more cafes that are considering longer working late shifts because they can depend on a cheap transport to and from work. So the economic effect we think will be very interesting to be checked up again, based on the same query. These would be not only people whom we queried three years ago in 2015 … now we can query a lot more, and we will see a great shift in data, I think.

You said that your campaign for night public transport lasted three years. I am of course interested in your relationships with the public transit authority (Gergin laughs) but I will ask instead whether you see the change in their heads during these three years? Did they change their visions as well, are there any things that you disagreed upon and then you came to an agreement?

Well, the greatest issue in Sofia is that Sofia’s transit authority, the Urban Mobility Centre, doesn’t implement and they don’t lobby for improving the public transport. They are silent, they are uninvolved, and they don’t consider themselves an interested party in the process. They justify it with saying: “Whatever the Municipality or the City Council decide, that is what we’ll do”. So we have to deal with politicians. And politicians in the City Council of Sofia are shockingly incompetent. At a meeting with members of the majority party in the City Council, where we attempted to present our night public transport proposal we said: “We have to do this, and we have to do this right, because if we do it like the previous experiments, we will fail, and people will completely lose trust in night public transport”. And they said “Well, we can try this with one or two lines”. They did not consider that exactly this mindset was why the previous attempts failed! If you are to create a transport system that is inefficient, and insufficient, people will not use it. We had to work hard to debunk the notion that you can introduce a brand new transport system in the “slice by slice” manner.

Throughout these three years we had five stages of transition in thought. At the beginning, we faced a strict and firm denial. Then they said: “Well, we think we would do it, but we have to think about it.” Later the position changed to “Well, we are working on a solution”. After that they presented a very poor proposal for a night transport. The initial plan was to extend the working hours of some day lines without any consideration whether they will properly connect with one another. We had to spend four months collecting signatures on the streets for a petition for a proper night transport system. We raised more than 31 000 signatures and we presented them to the Municipality in February 2018. Two months later — on April 7th they introduced the system.

Needless to say we were completely unsatisfied with it. And when they realized how large the potential backlash would be, they announced that they are researching the ridership and people’s willingness to pay — i.e. what fare would be considered proper by the public. Via our connections with the experts we managed to find out that the only question they bothered to ask regarding night mobility was “Are you willing to pay more for night public transport?” Which is the least important question in the various sets of questions they could ask. So we were distraught and we thought that the aim of the authorities is for the experiment to fail. Because it’s not the first time they do something like that. Currently, Sofia’s night public transport is “experimental”. So the process is not finished yet.

Do they call it trial in order to retain higher flexibility and possibility to manipulate for themselves?

Well, in fact it is an established practice in Sofia that when something new is introduced, it is “under trial” for some period, after which the Municipality should to re-evaluate, modify, or abandon the “experiment”. Prior to the start of the night public transport we were certain that what the Municipality is doing is to set it up to fail and to discredit the idea permanently. But one or two weeks prior to the launch of the service we were pleasantly surprised to see that the lines are very similar to what we proposed, their number was reduced, but still they are almost identical with the routes and parameters we drafted.

The buses run every night at a 40 minute interval, they have one transfer stop at the city centre where they are arriving at synchronized time, thus allowing passengers to switch lines. All stops, serviced by the night transport are clearly marked. There was a media campaign, there were posters on stops and in the buses and trams.

That popularization effort surprised us — in our analysis we recognized the lack of those measures as problematic in the previous experiments and the Municipality corrected for all of them this time. It was a nice surprise.

Of course, the system they introduced is still insufficient: 40 minutes are too much for a city like Sofia, the routes are missing important stops, many of them are only one way stops. That means you can board the bus to the centre, but you can go back to the same location, because the Urban Mobility Centre didn’t properly plan the usage of existing stops. That drives away passengers. For instance line N3, that goes from Ovcha kupel to Levski, and is a metro replacement line is the least busy one. This is a huge problem: Ovcha Kupel has population of fifty thousand, and Levski has somewhere around ten to fifteen thousand. These are huge areas, but they are practically “isolated” — there is no night life there, they are called the “bedrooms” (spalniki) of Sofia, because people just go there to sleep, and then go to work in the morning. Liulin and Mladost are exactly the same type of housing districts but their size and density naturally formed their internal social life keeping them active 24/7, whereas Ovcha Kupel and Levski don’t have that, they are pretty much dormant at night.

Do you think that if the experiment turns out to be successful, maybe even we even already observe that, will municipality declare this success as their own success? (Gergin presented right after the presentation by a representative of Sofia transit authority who spoke on the same topic – A.V.)

Of course they will. No politician will give credit to somebody else for a successful project, depending on their consent. Few weeks before the start of the system the Municipality claimed that the plans for it were in the making, before we even thought about it. But the fact is that the system, currently servicing Sofia is largely based on our proposal: our routes, our basic parameters, our transfer window concept.

I have nothing against them boasting about achieving this, because they actually did. It’s a huge achievement on their part actually, putting the effort to do something right, even though there are still improvements to be done. Our organization doesn’t care if the authorities are going to boast or “steal our thunder”, as far as the job is done. The city needs it, and now the city has it. They can boast all they want, people know the truth. The funny thing is that the first night the lines started, our team went on a celebratory ride, and many people that used the buses said: “Oh, I signed your petition, you guys did it”!

Night time ridership during two first months of the experiment

You are seven people and you have incredible number of followers on Facebook, over fifty thousand, I guess in Belarus no one has it.

We are very… aggressive, yes, this is the word. Because we don’t shy away from calling authorities malicious if they are, or their decisions stupid if they are. And this draws people’s attention. Well, many people are drawn in for the “hate”, they are entertained by a voice of dissent against the status-quo but when a city is in crisis, just as Sofia is, politeness is not always working.

Sofia is also in a political crisis: our leaders are incapable of proposing unpopular measures and defending them. The mayor is practically non-existent. She has no opinions of her own and every time we say: “Isn’t she going to intervene? Isn’t she going to do something?”, she says: “I am going to let my experts decide.” And her experts are often compliant to some backstage arrangements. Unfortunately there is this culture of thought in Bulgaria that being socially active and publicly criticizing the authorities, you are either working on behalf of a political party or you are being on the payroll of some “Soros” character. This is a serious issue we have to tackle every day. This is why we aim to be extremely objective in our critique and even though it is harsh — to justify every negative comment we make and evidence and to propose improvements, to showcase an alternative. There is no right wing or left wing way to design a street. Either the project is adequate or it is not. This is why we are so aggressive, and noisy, and popular. Because even though the position of “activist” is being demonized by those not wanting to deal with criticism, the only way to improve your city is by participate in its’ political scene. And non government organization like ours are a vital and legitimate part of this ecosystem.