Riding the Bus With a Mission in Sofia

Sofia, among other capitals and cities across the 3Seas Region, offers some good news in the race for cleaner transport. But a lot still must be done.

Young smiling woman holding onto a handle while traveling by public bus.
Photo: iStock.com / Drazen Zigic

Ask anyone waiting in the scorching heat for their bus to come in Sofia about their feelings towards the Bulgarian capital’s public transportation system, and you’re in for a lot of passionate sharing of often not-so-positive feelings.

Differing opinions on how to move forward

Chaotic might be one way to describe the system residents of the capital rely on to get to work or school. After all, the city’s buses, trams, trolley-buses, and metro are being managed by different companies, with different management and different views on how things should be done.

Archaic might also be a word that pops up often. It wasn’t until recently that Sofia, a city proud of its booming IT industry, required passengers to buy a paper ticket, using mostly cash, and perforate it in an old-timey perforator upon boarding the vehicle.

And then, there’s the underserved, with certain neighborhoods desperately in need of better access to the city’s public transportation network. The list goes on. Sofia, a city of over 1,200,000 people, is only now starting to reinstate its night public bus system, halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Baby steps: Before the pandemic, Bulgaria’s largest city was served only by four bus lines, all of which should be operational by the end of the year.

A better-than-expected showing

While it certainly might look like Sofia has a lot of homework to pay attention to, there is good news, too. In July, Sofia, as well as other big cities across the 3Seas Region, made a splash in a new pan-European study ranking efforts to introduce shared and zero-emission transport options. The study by the Clean City Campaign looked at 42 European cities, evaluating how well cities are doing on a range of indicators, which are: shared bikes and e-scooters, shared electric cars, zero-emission buses, and public electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure.

The only two European capitals rewarded with an A grade in the study were Oslo (87% total score) and Copenhagen (81%), followed by Paris (70%) in the third position, but graded with a B. Surprisingly, maybe, Sofia (total score 36%) emerged as one of the leading studied cities for zero-emission buses (68% score; score based on the share of the city’s urban bus fleet that is zero-emission), sharing the top five with Oslo (84%), Copenhagen (73%), Milan (71%), and Helsinki (68%).

Sofia’s total score placed the city in the 20th position in the ranking, after Ljubljana, the only 3Seas region capital with a C rating (9th position, 51% score), and Budapest (17th position, 40% score). D-cities Sofia and Budapest were followed in the same category by three Polish cities, Tri-city (32%), Kraków and Warsaw (each city with a 29% score), as well as by Prague and Bucharest, which received a 21% score each.

The Clean City Campaign study notes that “some of the cities that made considerable progress on shared and electric mobility did so by making consistent political choices and timely investment decisions. Creating the right regulatory frameworks for managing shared transport was particularly important… Ljubljana and Sofia have made great strides by going straight for electric car-sharing options.”

A strong second-place finish

Indeed, the absolute leader aside (Ljubljana, 100%), Sofia is doing a good job also in the shared electric cars category. With a 48% score (score based on the number of shared electric cars available per 1,000 inhabitants), the Bulgarian capital is most certainly lagging behind its Slovenian counterpart, but Sofia is nevertheless the second-best 3Seas Region capital in the study. For comparison, in the same category, Warsaw received a 10% score, which is still higher than Tri-Cities’ zero percent score.

What can Sofia do to further improve its shared and zero-emission mobility ranking? The city is lagging behind many of its 3Sea Region counterparts when it comes to EV charging infrastructure (22% score vs. Ljubljana’s 78%; score based on publicly available charging power per 1,000 inhabitants.). Sofia also has a long way to go when it comes to shared bikes and e-scooters. In this category (score based on the number of shared e-scooters and (e-)bikes available per 1,000 inhabitants), Warsaw emerged as a regional leader with a 64% score vs. Sofia’s 5%.

As commuters in Sofia are anxiously waiting for that bus to come, Barbara Stoll, Director of the Clean Cities Campaign, offers some food for thought: “City leaders that show leadership and ambition are able to make wise and nimble investment decisions which can super-charge their efforts towards a zero-emissions urban future,” Stoll says. “It’s not primarily about having more money – cities that are not among the richest have far outperformed their peers through good regulatory frameworks and forward-looking planning.”

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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