By Ahmad Rafay Alam
Traffic congestion is a universal constant. What isn’t, on the other hand, is the many ways traffic congestion and transport problems are perceived and tackled. Some cities have managed to break free of their dependence of the automobile. Many more haven’t, and have lost themselves to Congestion. The approach each city takes to the problem of urban congestion and transport is an insight into their priorities and a gauge of how successful their efforts will be.
The motor vehicles that cause congestion are major polluters of urban air. For example, on June 7 the Environment Protection Agency of Punjab issued a report on air-quality monitoring in Lahore. According to the EPA, as of June 2008, Lahore’s air is the most polluted it has ever been. “Since records began.”
The EPA has compiled a list of factors that contribute to the increase in pollution. These include “traffic jams at crossings, and high density of traffic on the road.” In 2005, the District Officer (Environment) of Lahore had estimated that there were 1.5 million registered motor vehicles in Lahore. According to statistics recently released by the Excise and Taxation Department, 900,000 new vehicles were registered in Lahore between 2002 and 2007.
Not only do these new automobiles pollute, but the statistics show that the amount of cars in Lahore has doubled in the last six years. These automobiles are the primary cause of the congestion. From these facts alone, the number of automobiles in the city and the harm they cause the environment should be major factors in any urban congestion and transport decision.
According to the UN World Urbanisation Prospectus, Lahore’s population grew past one million nearly 50 years ago. In 1980 it was approximately three million. According to the 1998 census, it stood at 5.143.495 million. It’s currently estimated to be seven-nine million and is expected to grow to nearly 15 million in the next 10 years. The footprint of the city has grown at an equal rate. At Partition and for some time after, the only habitation east of the Canal was the Cantonment, Model Town and the odd village. During the 80’s a barely metalled road turned off Walton Road towards the new Lahore Cantonment Cooperative Housing Society, the DHA’s predecessor. Now, the city creeps east and southwards. Thokar Niaz Beg has been adopted as a bona fide part of the city. The City District Government’s proposal for Lahore 2020 sees it swell well towards Raiwind. The new LDA Avenue schemes have now committed the city’s footprint, as have the DHA’s phases V to VIII: from the banks of the Ravi to the polluted nullahs along the Raiwind Road to the south and the BRB Canal on the east, the future is all town houses, each with its own automobile.
From these facts alone, the urban growth and future trends in urban development should be major factors in any urban congestion and transport decision.
For as long as memory can recollect relevant facts, the government’s major efforts made to deal with urban congestion in Lahore have been (i) the construction of underpasses on the Canal; (ii) the widening of roads in Gulberg, as well as Ferozepur Road; (iii) the privatisation of bus-based urban transport, and (iv) the induction of a new cadre of Traffic Wardens into the ranks of the traffic police. The Parwaiz Elahi government took some steps towards the Lahore Rapid Mass Transit System (LRMTS). The first stage, expected to be ready by 2011, will connect Hamza Town on Ferozepur Road with Shahdara in the north at the cost of $2.4 billion. The final stage of the project is expected to be completed by 2020.
With the qualified exception of the new Traffic Wardens, none of the major initiatives have produced any tangible results yet. The underpasses fail to solve the problem of congestion at intersections and the widened roads provided temporary relief from congestion but have only been filled by the hundreds of thousands of new motor vehicles travelling miles from home in new and far-flung residential housing schemes and work in the same three-kilometre radius of the High Court. The public transport system is in a shamble. It’s in no condition to service the millions of Lahoris who need conveyance from home to work, let alone match the standards of cleanliness and efficiency expected from the average automobile owner. As for the LRMTS, time can only tell. Meanwhile, one should guard against being swept away by the present provincial claim that it will “solve” Lahore congestion problems. Although the LRMTS is a public transport alternative, consider it is also the most expensive. The city of Bogota once refused financing of a similar project and opted for the far cheaper bus rapid transport (BRT) form of public transport. Since then, it has become one of the only cities in the developing world to have escaped a future under the servitude of the automobile. Also, the LRMTs does not provide for the millions of new automobiles that will ply the city’s streets by the time it is up and running. One hopes that the LRMTS isn’t rendered sterile by an increased numbers of cars.
What each one of these initiatives does reveal is that urban transport planning is not taking into account the increasing number of motor vehicles, the growth of the city or the environment. Given the enormous benefit to the health of every citizen, in terms of cost and in terms the benefits arising from inner-city accessibility one would think that public transport would one of the provincial government’s primary areas of interest. Don’t get me wrong, the provincial government is interested, and committees are being set up and meetings held. But these seek to “solve” congestion when, in reality, it can only be dealt with. With this approach to the issue, glaring oversights are common.
Most glaring of all, no one is talking about how traffic congestion is essentially an automobile problem that can only be tackled by reducing the number of automobiles (and not, as it commonly thought, by cutting down trees and widening roads). No one has recognized that, by ignoring this suggestion, it is clear that the strategy to counter congestion is being run by people who drive cars. What can be expected from an urban congestion policy that makes this fundamental mistake? No one is talking about strategies to get automobile users weaned off their dependency to the automobile. No one is talking about imposing a congestion tax (different from a tax on luxury cars, which is merely eyewash) and using the revenue to finance environmentally friendly BRT transport solutions. No one is talking about designing our cities better so that work and recreation are walking distance or, at the most, accessible by public transport. No one is talking about beefing up the numbers and powers of the new Traffic Wardens. No one is talking about government incentives and better quality standards on new and existing public transport facilities. No one is talking about how congestion has changed. It’s no longer a purely traffic police matter. It is clearly linked to urban planning, to the environment and to the way we choose to live in cities. And unless these fundamental issues are not addressed, facing urban congestion will remain impossible.
The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@ nexlinx.net.pk
courtesy: The News