Go GaWC Yourselves

By: Slava Borisov | In: St. Petersburg | Posted

In the 2018 ranking of “global cities” maintained by the Globalization and World Cities Network (GaWC), St. Petersburg occupies a prominent spot in the highly prestigious “Gamma” category – alongside such global heavyweights as Paraguay’s Asunción, Angola’s Luanda, China’s Kunming, and, most notably, Honduras’s Tegucigalpa [1]. Okay, I revise my earlier claim: maybe the category is not that prestigious after all.

According to the GaWC researchers, if our city wasn’t such a painfully obvious non-entity perched precariously on the world’s periphery, we might have a shot at moving up one category, to “Gamma+”. We would then be able to compete head-to-head with the likes of Harare (Zimbabwe), Xi’an (China), Pune (India), and Guatemala City (why, Guatemala, naturally!). Two levels up (a grouping called “Beta-,” but don’t you get any heady ideas just yet) and we’d be level peers with Almaty (Kazakhstan), Chongqing (China), Suzhou (also China), and San Salvador (El Salvador). Three levels up (“Beta,” and please, everyone sit down!) and we’d be hot on Wuhan’s and Karachi’s tails. Just imagine! Alas, as it stands now, we’re only a Tegucigalpa-tier city.

One can, of course, laugh at the methodology that has produced such an absurd rating, and I have, but let’s stay serious for a minute: this load of bosh is what the best–or the best-funded, anyway–geographers could come up with, and since no one has yet suggested anything better, we are where we are. Which is right next to Tegucigalpa, in case you’ve missed my earlier point.

Respect my centralitah!

As best I can interpret it, the GaWC ranking is based on the various metrics of “network science,” which is a new and moderately fashionable sort-of-science invented in the 21st century by a few intrepid academics who saw clearly that grant money available to researchers in graph theory was nowhere near sufficient to provide for their loved ones and then decided to do something about it. What they did was they renamed graphs into networks, vertices into nodes, edges into links, and having finished all this hard work, they applied for much larger grants.

The point of fledgling network science, somewhat tautologically, is drawing conclusions about the nature of things that are organized in networks of some kind. People, computers, railroads, gas pipelines, you name it. Networks of computers have already been studied to death, so how about networks of cities? If you think this idea has a ring to it, you might have a bright future ahead of you in drafting grant applications.

The GaWC team at Loughborough University (UK) put together a whole bunch of graphs (sorry, networks) showing how people, firms, services, and merchandise move about in our globalized world. Then they ranked the world’s various cities according to the degree of intensity with which all these agents of globalization move between them. That, or something like that–this degree of “connectedness”–is known in the network science racket as “centrality.” The result is plain for everyone to see, should they wish to scroll way down to the Gamma category: St. Petersburg may be beautiful and all, but it’s just not very central. No offense, Vladimir. It's the science.

I surmise that at some point St. Petersburg’s city fathers must have read through the GaWC list–in all probability, not without resorting to the helpful Control-F key combination–and, having found the city in their charge, gotten over the shock, and talked the whole matter over with their advisors, decided that enough is enough. Or perhaps they were about to decide that anyway. Be it as it may, in the last few weeks, several important measures have been announced that have the potential to transform the way St. Petersburg is connected to other cities, and thus quite likely changing the city’s standing in next years’ GaWC ratings. Let me describe the two most obvious and talked about.

Come one, come (almost) all

One such measure is the introduction, this past October 1st, of simplified electronic visas for citizens of 53 countries, good for short visits (up to 8 days) and covering only St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Oblast’ (which pairing makes about as much sense as “New York City and the New Amsterdam metropolitan area” but happens to be the official designation of the respective political units). This means that even if your country is on the list, you should not attempt to travel to Moscow on this simplified electronic visa. If a visit to the capital is essential, get yourself a regular visa from your nearest Russian consulate. I can not stress this enough – especially given that just yesterday I was unexpectedly relieved of my obligation to pick up a visiting friend at the airport because the hapless traveller, a fully qualified e-visa recipient from continental Europe, had booked a flight with a transfer in Moscow and was shocked to discover the full force of the new visa’s geographic restrictions… less than 24 hours before departure.

The complete list of the 53 countries is posted here [2]. Shining by their absence are the five major anglophone countries – the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Apart from this curious (and likely political) omission, the selection criteria are not very hard to suss out: the civilized world is largely included, the less civilized world is largely not. No sentimentality, no nonsense, and no offense to the mostly uncivilized 140 (193–53).

First electronic visa tourists are said to have already landed at Pulkovo. Regrettably, the only person of my acquaintance to have attempted the maneuver is not among them.

Easy(Jet) Does It

The other, related measure is the imminent addition of several low-costers to the roster of companies flying in and out of Pulkovo, St. Petersburg’s only international airport.

The winter season, which started just over a week ago, already saw one new air connection: Wizz Air’s sub-£50 route to London (Luton). Prior to that, Wizz Air had been flying direct to Budapest; that route’s traffic has been growing at a 20% clip annually.

As for the other, more iconic, low-costers, things are still up in the air. The Ministry of Transport pre-approved about a dozen of the 33 routes proposed by Northern Capital Gateway (NCC), the airport’s operator, under the unofficial “Seventh Freedom of The Air.” This “freedom” (pedantically preceded in official documents with the qualifier “so-called”) is a sort of bonus on top of the internationally agreed five; it gives airlines the right to transport passengers and cargo between two “third” states without taking off or landing in their own country. This means that RyanAir, for example, could launch a direct St. Petersburg-Paris route and not have to make any stopovers in Dublin. Ditto for EasyJet and London, respectively.

It’s not entirely clear whether RyanAir and EasyJet are among those that have already approved (though I suspect as much), but according to a report by Russian Aviation Insider[3], both were among the companies that presented their “wishlists” in August. Clearly, the wheels (or propellers) are turning on that front.

So what of the effects of this growing air connectivity? Writes Russian Aviation Insider:

“Pulkovo expects that, as a result of the open-skies regime, by 2025 the major traffic growth will come from Germany (514,000 passengers), France (496,000), the UK (375,000), Italy (357,000) and Spain (375,000).”

That jives surprisingly well with the tourism growth estimate that has been floating around the various press articles: that St. Petersburg is likely to receive about two million additional foreign tourists as a result of the introduction of e-visas. If you thought that lines for the Hermitage were already long as they are, wait until they start bulking up with an average of 5,500 extra art-starved foreigners each and every day (that’s two million over 365, assuming that every additional tourist will want to visit the Hermitage at least once per trip, which I would venture is not an unreasonable assumption).

This is all good and well, of course, but I am sure the question on everybody’s mind is this: when will St. Petersburgers be finally able to fly direct to visit their Gamma-list counterparts in Tegucigalpa? Sorry to disappoint, but the answer seems to be “not any time soon:” the Central American country’s government (when there was one to speak of) has spent the past decade dealing with the thorny question of whether the capital’s airport, Toncontín, with its extremely short runways, could even in principle be revamped to accommodate modern passenger planes. The jury is still out on this one. The alternative solution was to abandon it and build a new airport or simply use a nearby military air base for commercial flights. There are arguments and counter-arguments to be made and this being Honduras, the next coup may always come sooner than your return flight. Regardless, Toncontín right now has only a handful of international links (Panama, Nicaragua, and the USA) and in 2018, the airport served only about 625,000 passengers.

You can easily see why not many people might want to visit. Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate. Most of the country’s 300 to 400 street gangs are based in the capital (population 1,150,000). The city’s public transportation system, which consists of buses and taxis, has been described as “highly disorganized.” On the positive side, Tegucigalpa boasts 14 museums, 4 theaters, and 28 supermarkets.

Back in St. Petersburg, Pulkovo’s total passenger traffic in the first nine months of this year reached 13.2 million passengers, growing 8.6% year-on-year. With some luck, we might hit 20 million for the whole year. I won’t bother you with our city’s other stats except to say that we have considerably more museums that Tegucigalpans have supermarkets.

Yeah, GaWC researchers, “Gamma” fits us about right. Good job and keep on counting those links!

[1] GaWC (Wikipedia) (wikipedia.org)
[2] E-VISA APPLICATION PROCESS (electronic-visa.kdmid.ru)
[3] Budget airlines Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air to exploit St Petersburg’s open-skies regime (rusaviainsider.com)