Sunday, 24 June 2012

A city of contrasts

An opportunity of doing somebody a service, driving the newly built motorway, popping over to Łódź and being reimbursed costs of petrol could not be missed. Oddly enough with hindsight it turned out I was not the only one to visit Łódź yesterday – fellow blogger Michael and his son took the same journey, also by car.

I haven’t checked how long it took my to cover the distance between the suburbs of Warsaw and “eastern centre” of Łódź, nor the time needed to get there. I think it was roughly two hours each way, minority of which was spent on the new 93-kilometre long A2 motorway. Getting to the motorway from Łódź is not a nuisance, but reaching it in Warsaw is a bigger challenge. I decide to take the simplest route, namely: Puławska -> Rzymowskiego -> Marynarska / Hynka / Łopuszańska / Kleszczowa -> Chrobrego -> Dźwigowa (the infamous tunnel under the tracks after years of repair was opened on 6 June) -> Połczyńska, and from there I turned onto S8 expressway, which in Konotopa transforms into S2 expressway and then before Pruszków the road narrows from three to two lanes (fairly enough) and receives a status of a motorway. A2 between Pruszków and Stryków near Łódź will become a toll road in 2014, the toll is expected to be 0.10 PLN / kilometre, which is still a reasonable charge. Motorway operated by the Polish state will have toll caps imposed by the EU, while operators of those built under public-private partnership are given a free rein to rip the drivers off.
Getting to the motorway from the southern fringes of Warsaw will be facilitated, when S2 expressway, linking junction Konotopa west of Warsaw and ul. Puławska is completed. Judging by the photo taken today, even next year completion is not feasible. The sluggishness of both general contractors of the Southern bypass of Warsaw is mind-boggling for me. How come Gdaka (stands for National Road and Motorway Agency) has not put its foot down – construction of A2 motorway got under way a year later then works on S2 and the former is finished, while progress on the latter is more than a crying shame.

The traffic, as indicated on Michael’s photo (I haven’t taken any snaps, driving and taking photos at the same time is anything but prudent, there are plenty of shots on a relevant Skyscrapercity forum), was kind of sparse, as heavy vehicles are not allowed to take this road. Borderlines between sections are easily recognisable – the one between D and E sections can be distinguished by different colour of noise barriers, the other middle section – C and the longest and closest to Łódź – A, are marked by sights of unfinished infrastructure, speed limits and lack of the last layer of Tarmac (only section A). I didn’t drive fast (110 – 102 kmph) to keep the petrol consumption rather low (with headwinds on my way to Łódź it wasn’t low despite my efforts and due to air-con turned on), but didn’t let the car move below 100 kmph and found the speed limits unjustifiable. 100 kmph on section C is laughably low, 120 kmph would surely be more appropriate and 100 kmph instead of 70 kmph would be reasonable for section A given the quality of tarmac laid there. Driving too slow on a high-speed-motorway is dangerous as well and can distract a driver. You are more likely to cause an accident when you drive 70 kmph than if you drive 120 kmph, as the faster you drive (within reason), the more attention you have to pay to driving and with mere 70 on your speedometer, you run a risk of falling asleep behind the wheel.

In spite of being formally unfinished, the road’s beautiful, but driving it I couldn’t resist from pondering upon the misery of companies that have built it and who have paid the ultimate price for this contract. Chinese contractor has gone bankrupt and left Poland in mid-2011, lead co-contractor DSS has gone insolvent many months ago, hundreds of subcontractors have not been paid by the contractors, several have been declared tax criminals (they had issued invoices which had not been settled, but had been obliged to pay tax on their revenue) and lost all their personal assets just not to go to prisons. CEO of Strabag, contractor of section D moaned about loss incurred on the contract as a whole.

Unlike in Warsaw, the motorway doesn’t take you to the perimeters of the city. You slip off in Stryków and then head for Łódź via National road number 14. This shouldn’t take you long and soon will you be able to reach your destination. In terms of friendliness to drivers, Łódź surely beats Poznań, Wrocław and Gdańsk. Signage is well-visible and with a map on my knees (I haven’t upgraded to GPS) I could easily find where I am and where to go. Having dealt with what I’d been requested to do, I drove north towards Plac Wolności and left the car for half an hour to stroll down ul. Piotrkowska, the city’s pride and joy and pedestrian precinct.

I parked the car at the corner of ul. Pomorska and ul. Wschodnia (look at this place in Google Earth Street View) and realised why Łódź should not host football fans for Euro 2012. Not the obvious reason that the city doesn’t have a splendid stadium, not even how it looks, but who you can meet there. Just upon leaving the car I was accosted by a “car-minder”. It functions very simply – the car park is formally unpaid and not guarded, but some dirty, unemployed, often disabled people offer to take a look at your car while you’re away. I politely turned down this offer and walked away. Some ten minutes ago I recalled my father’s friend once told such person to f*ck off and when the returned, the car-minder was gone, but a dent on his brand-new Opel’s boot door was left…

I decided not to worry about my nine-year-old, not insured against theft and other damages car. A car, as any other device should serve you, not the other way round. I wandered to Plac Wolności (a blend of architectonic styles – pre-war tenements, communist-era blocks and a new building of a brokerage firm – who allowed for this?) and then south down ul. Piotrkowska, stared at mostly dilapidated buildings to come to a sad conclusion there is not much to take delight in. Façade of one tenement has been renovated, but pieces of plaster are falling off the other’s wall. Front façades are clean, but while peeking into the gates you see squalid backyards. It was Saturday, but I couldn’t spot many tourists. Most people hanging around were locals, most of who couldn’t boast about high social status, nor haven’t taken a bath and changed their clothes for at least a week.

Over the last decade the city has made a stride, but still lags behind most bigger cities in Poland. In terms of population it probably is still the second biggest one, despite rising outflow of inhabitants, mostly to Warsaw, but the quality of the population leaves a lot to be desired. I was near the centre of Łódź, quite near splendidly renovated Manufaktura shopping mall and on the high street and was confronted with dreadful poverty. As I was driving back towards road no. 14 I again glanced at ramshackle buildings and their God-forsaken dwellers and I began to ask myself whether I was the second biggest city of Poland or Romania. Bleak is the city, with huge districts of poverty from which no one will lift their residents and huge estates of panel-building blocks, some refurbished, some not, but all looking equally gloomy. The latter reminded me of Bemowo in Warsaw, I wonder why I find Bemowo so depressing, while in Ursynów, which has a quite similar architecture, I feel well…

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