I’ve posted before about marshrutkas—that lovely form of public transportation that will cheaply and efficiently (if a bit crudely) sweep you away to another city. This post is about the Tbilisi City marshrutka system: a different beast entirely. While I’m quite fond of the regional marshrutka system, I have a suspicion that city marshrutkas will forever haunt my dreams. A large part of this problem is NOT inherent in the system: the new yellow marshrutkas themselves are quite nice (some even have TVs!), it’s the simple fact that demand for transportation by marshrutka far outstrips the number of marshrutkas on the road. This leads to people crammed into marshrutkas like sardines, standing, bending and contorting themselves into every available bit of space. This is not an ideal situation for lovers of personal space, and often results in sweaty, smelly, cramped conditions. The stop-and-go nature of a marshrutka ride, combined with the enthusiasm for speed of marshrutka drivers often leads to a stomach-churning and unpleasant journey.
Despite these discomforts, demand for marshrutkas is high because their routes are very convenient. The metro is limited to just two lines, and the city buses run primarily in a hub-and-spoke system, while marshrutkas criss-cross the city in all manner of patterns. To get from one side of the city to the other by bus, you would probably have to transit through a central location and switch buses. Though marshrutkas often go through these central depots as well, they will continue past them and into other neighborhoods. Marshrutkas also reach far-flung neighborhoods that don’t have metro stations or many bus routes.
If you’ve read this far and still plan to take a marshrutka, this is how you do it. Generally, it’s easiest if you know the number of the marshrutka in advance. People who take marshrutkas frequently will have an impressively encyclopedic knowledge of which marshrutka will take you where—at least in their neighborhood. I’m even starting to develop a mini-encyclopedia of routes myself. UPDATE 11/12/12 There is now a website (currently in the test version) of marshrutka routes including a route finder here, but if you don’t know in advance your route number, you will have to try to read the sign on the marshrutka as it whizzes past. A tip: metro stations where the marshrutka stops will have a red “M” symbol next to the name—not all metro stations on the route will be labeled, but concentrating on the words with an “M” next to them may help you get an idea of where the marshrutka will go. Beware! Often marshrutka drivers will forget to flip over their sign when they turn around and run the route in reverse, so these signs might not even offer you a shred of helpful information (this is how I accidentally found myself at the Tbilisi Mall last week. I was not pleased). You can always ask the marshrutka driver where they’re going, but they tend to get cranky about this (marshrutka drivers in general seem to be a crankier bunch than the general population). Once you have found the correct marshrutka, you sit there and enjoy the ride (or stand there and try to keep the contents of your stomach under control). If you have to stand, I recommend attempting to do so at the back of the marshrutka—it’s generally more stable there, and there is more air. You need to signal the marshrutka driver when to stop (yell გამიჩერეთ!—gamicheret!). This can be tricky if you’re standing, because you will not be able to see out the windows. You may need to ask other passengers where you are, or contort yourself to glimpse out the window.
A city marshrutka costs 80 tetri, payable by MetroMoney or cash (marshrutka drivers will make change). Under the current pay scheme, a subsequent ride using MetroMoney is 65 tetri. There are some marshrutka routes (usually short routes to specific residential areas) that cost 40 or 60 tetri. If this is the case, there will be a sign over the payment area. The price on these marshrutkas does not decrease on subsequent routes.
City marshrutkas are an advanced topic of life in Georgia. If you’re just here for a short trip, I highly recommend that you take a taxi!