Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. That’s certainly a thought that comes to mind traversing one of Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi’s brand new roads. Roads, roads everywhere but no relief from the congestion.
There have been voices of discontent over the many avenues laid through the middle of Islamabad. Although there are Seventh and Agha Shahi Avenues, traffic remains unruly. In Lahore, a decade of spending billions on Jail, Ferozepur and Canal roads hasn’t improved traffic. And Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad are the Jewels of the Crown: the traffic in other cities — Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Faisalabad, Sukkur — shakes the foundations of one’s belief. What should raise eyebrows is the fact that if the strategy to solve traffic congestion employed in large cities — throwing infrastructure, the odd bridge and underpass, at the problem — hasn’t worked so far, how will it work in our other cities? Will they be bound to the same trajectory into the dusty and dangerous cement-scapes these big cities are becoming or have already become?
There are two fundamental considerations that urban planning experts must make when devising urban transport policies. The first is it that mobility is the basic fundamental right of every citizen. She or he should be free to traverse across cities unhindered and unmolested. By not providing adequate provision for safe walking and cycling and respectful public transport, urban planners are violating this right by depriving citizens of the ability to choose their means of transport.
The point becomes more clear when one reflects on the actual position of urban mobility. In Lahore, about eight per cent of the population has access to a private automobile. A recent report indicates that nearly 20 per cent of the city gets to work by bus and 40 per cent gets about by foot. The report also highlights that Lahoris take an estimated 9.8 million trips a day. For a city of nearly 10 million, this figure is less than half of other cities of comparable size. In effect, women, children, senior citizens and the handicapped are rendered immobile by the lack of mobility options.
Why, then, lay down road infrastructure for the use of private automobiles without providing for the overwhelming number of public transport users and pedestrians? This is why Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of the Colombian city of Bogota and the architect of that city’s transport-based urban transformation, says that democracy is demonstrated as much by how a city uses its roads as an election. A city which provides more for the few is not a democratic place. A society that treats a man on a cycle differently from a man in a car is not democratic.
Lahore’s streets are currently in the process of being ripped apart and rebuilt for the much vaunted Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT). The BRT plan follows, with some deviation, the route for a mass transit system proposed during the Pervaiz Elahi government. While mass transit systems are meant to make the city more sustainable and user-friendly, there has been criticism of the apparent lack of planning and last-minute changes to the BRT route. Also, despite warnings raised by NGOs during it’s Environment Impact Assessment hearing, the dust levels created by the construction work have moved the Environment Protection Agency, Punjab to take action — something the government-friendly EPA doesn’t normally do.
The Lahore BRT is an ambitious and costly project which raises the risk that if not properly executed, it could end public transport initiatives in other cities. Hence, the second fundamental consideration urban planners must make is that, according to research, building new roads increases demand for cars and that public transport alone does nothing to solve traffic congestion.
The Braess Paradox of urban congestion stipulates that if you build it, the cars will come. In our context, the experience of building new roads in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, without real change in levels of traffic, proves the point. And the findings of US researchers in their paper, “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion”, indicate that road-widening and public transport will not make a dent against traffic. Instead, they indicate that the latest techniques of congestion charging may be a possible solution.
The question is whether our urban planners are open to new ideas. The answer must be yes. The current strategy of road congestion isn’t working and our cities and the productivity of their people stand compromised. I remain sceptical. The Lahore Parking Company — the entity that would most likely be responsible for devising parking policies — recently placed an advertisement for the position of a “General Manger Operations”! Happy cow indeed.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2012.
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