The Rebel Road…

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Traffic systems in Lahore | How not to help.

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More than a million people are killed on the world’s roads each year. The total is expected to rise steeply as the number of motor vehicles increases rapidly in many formerly less-motorized countries. Traffic crashes are one of the world’s largest public health problems. The problem is all the more acute because the victims are overwhelmingly young and healthy prior to their crashes.

(Evans, L. Traffic Safety)

Pakistan, in particular the cities of Lahore and Karachi, has seen a dramatic rise in the number of vehicles and, consequently, traffic jams in the last few months. People trapped in traffic spend hours simply waiting in their lanes (provided they are patient enough) in hopes of some movement. Not only does this lead to the more obvious effects of people being late for their appointments, loss of time, increased inefficiency and waste of fuel but also to lesser known affects as psychological damage, health risks etc. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that a traffic jam’s affects are not just limited to the vehicles but extend to the drivers as well. These negative externalities that affect each and every one of us, across the board, include the rising of localised temperatures as well as noise and air pollution. The situation has deteriorated to the extent that a survey conducted in 2004, in Lahore, said that 70 percent of all ear, nose and throat diseases could be directly traced to vehicular pollution – the Pakistani public is paying heavily for increasing vehicular transport. “The impact of pollution on health can be seen every day. More and more people are coming in with respiratory ailments, and many more children than before have breathing disorders or asthma,” said Dr Anees Sultan, a Lahore-based family physician [courtesy Reuters Foundation]. Furthermore, incidences of lead poisoning are at an all time high with traffic wardens and school children being the worst affected. Lead-levels as high as 38g/dl have been recorded on Mall Road, McLeod Road, Ferozpur Road, Multan Road, Circular Road, Bhatti Gate, Kashmiri Gate, Yakki Gate etc. whereas safe levels should not exceed 20 g/dl.

Although traffic related issues have only recently started cropping up but the seeds of this problem are found as far back as the early 2000s. When recession hit Pakistani markets, the banks decided to issue out low-interest leasing schemes to maintain their financial efficacy. This mass-promotion of the ‘purchase now-pay later’ offer led people, who could not ever hope to buy cars due to their low-incomes, to flock to the banks and secure their new transports. The effects of such an unplanned increase of vehicles can be seen by the figures themselves. According to a briefing given by Tariq Zaman Khan, District Environmental Officer for the City District Government of Lahore, the vehicular population of Lahore was 867989 in 2002, 942553 in 2003, 1.1 million in 2004, 1.35 million in January of 2006 and 1.7 million at the beginning of 2007. Reuters foundation, however, maintains that this number had gone past 4 million vehicles by, as early as, 2005. Nearly 43.5 percent of Lahore’s traffic is composed of cars while 40.1 percent comprises motorcycles. In addition, rickshaws constitute 5.1 percent of the total which is extremely high. A City District Government of Lahore’s Environment department official was of the opined that nearly 69 percent of total vehicular pollution was caused by two-stroke rickshaws and motor-cycle rickshaws. Buses and wagons, running on diesel, accounted for an additional 15 percent where as the rest is pollution was from motobikes, cars, trucks and tractors. Rickshaws are one of the primary sources of vehicular air pollution in the country. With the replacement of older, polluting rickshaws with newer, air-friendly versions it was thought that this would significantly help the situation. However, incidences of corruption such as the issuance of 40,000 permission certificates to the older rickshaws on the eve, literally, of their complete ban hinder such progressive steps.

There are many factors which are contributing to the current traffic jams. One of these is the mismanagement conducted by the City District Government Lahore’s Traffic Department. While new steps are being taken to induct more traffic staff and standardize traffic training on Motorway Police standards – steps which are, undeniably, in the right direction – one wonders if it is too little too late.

Mr. Muneer, a traffic warden, was frustrated by the sheer enormity of his task. “What can I do”, he exclaimed, “when no one wants to listen to me? I have no authority – I can’t even write out a chalan (citation) because we have not been given our chalan books in spite of the fact that they were supposed to given out to us last month. Everyone thinks that we’re the same type of corrupt officers, like those before us, and there is no moral authority that we can depend on.”

Use of harsh and obscene language on the part of the general public, or even minor scuffles have been noted, however it is worth mentioning that, these new traffic wardens comport themselves with great professionalism in the face of ever-increasing odds.

Mr. Jahanzaib, another traffic warden, said, “We are only trying to help the people if they would let us. Half the traffic jams occur because someone is in too much of a hurry to wait for his or her turn. If we can only try to be a little more patient and work together we can manage traffic far faster than we do at present.”

Another problem facing most of residential and commercial sub-districts of Lahore is the constant ‘renovation’ of roads. It is common experience that roads are (un)usually dug up only a few months after their construction. The result is a perpetually dilapidated condition of most city roads.

According to Mr. Anjum Siddique, a resident of Allama Iqbal Town, “There is less tarmac and more pot-holes on the road. I’ve had to have my car’s shocks changed twice in just one year. It’s playing havoc with my bills and car consumption. Most of the roads in Allama Iqbal Town are already so rundown that detours are needed every time.”

There are three main departments responsible for the incessant digging up of roads i.e The Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA), the Gas Department (LESCO) and the Lahore Development Authority (LDA). All of these departments work on entirely ill-coordinated and inefficient schedules. Since they do not coordinate with each other the result is, usually, that most water and gas pipes are not installed before the road construction commences.

Encroachments on public property also play a very important part in creating bottle-necks on the road. This has the invariable result on putting pressure at certain junctures and, consequently, traffic pile-ups. Encroachments are seen on many major roads and places such as Wahdat Road, Lakshmi Chowk, Choburji, Liberty, etc. Encroachments are the natural result of improper work-space allocation and greed on the part of shop-owners and corruption on the part of authorities that are supposed to safeguard public interests. One such shop-owner, Mr. Nizaam, was interviewed by Vista Magazine. He told us that, “As long as my money finds its way into the pockets of local and LDA officials, I have nothing to worry about.” On bringing the obvious moral dilemma to his attention his reply was, “who should I care about more – my child or some driver who can drive around my encroachment easily?”

It is this attitude that is poisoning our society and destroying public-consciousness.

In addition illegal parking is an anathema to good road sense. Pakistani’s, generally, are in the habit of parking their cars or motorcycles wherever they please and doing their chores. As examples, ranging from regular evening-traffic jams on M M Alam road and Liberty to difficult driving conditions of the old-Lahore city, teach us repeatedly – we must begin to think of more than just ourselves and our ease if we are to maintain coordinated and efficient traffic systems.

In some cases parking tickets are given out to drivers by ‘officials’ entrusted by the government to regulate parking in certain zones, however, this practice has been known to be mired in corruption. It is for this reason that the parking-methods used by such ‘officials’ are contrary to the needs of good driving-etiquette; it is due to the fact that most of these ‘officials’ are merely thugs with ticket-books who charge two or three times the amount set by the government for parking purposes.

Furthermore, it has been seen that more and more government officials insist that traffic systems come to a halt so that their vehicles can pass through without any ‘commoner’ getting near them. It is feared that another suicide attack or assassination attempt might be made on them – no doubt a fitting commentary on their current policies. For this reason it is seen that all traffic along ALL routes taken by ministers, advisors or generals are sealed off hours in advance. One such incident occurred recently when Chaudhary Shujat of the PML-Q and Tariq Mehmood, foreign Secretary of Pakistan, decided to go for a medical check up at Doctor’s Hospital – this, however, at the cost of several other, no doubt far more urgent, medical needs of patients who were denied much needed treatment for hours due to traffic jams.

Rush hours in Lahore, lasting from 8:00 am to 9:00 am, 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm and 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm, have increased in intensity many fold. However the worst rush-hour, by far, is the one which occurs in the afternoon. It is the time at which schools close and offices-workers take time off for lunch. It has been seen that residential areas of Gulberg, Model Town, Allama Iqbal town, New Muslim town and certain sectors of D.H.S are jam packed with traffic due to the presence of schools. This is especially true for the Gulberg area which takes on the form of a labyrinth for anyone who wants to drive out of Gulberg – estimated to have 14 schools per square kilometre.

Public awareness on alternatives such as car-pooling or using public transport has also not been actively encouraged. This is because the government has not really given much thought to car-pooling ideas but is already severely limited in its capacity to provide economical and dependable public transport. Recent initiatives have been taken at changing this with the introduction of the Daewoo intra-city buses as well as plans for building an Underground Railroad system. It is hoped that the Underground Railroad system will not turn into an Underground Railroad disaster like most other projects undertaken by the government, of late.

Rains are, perhaps, the most intimidating challenge for our traffic systems. It has been observed that Lahore traffic comes to an abrupt halt with the first few drops of rain. Inadequate sewerage systems and poorly built roads result in car-breakdowns, accidents and bottlenecks which hamper adequate traffic flow. This is even truer in times of heavy rain when most traffic wardens abandon their posts for the relative shelter of trees, in the process, consigning traffic to its own random fate.

“In developing countries it is of particular importance that the introduction of motorised transportation is based on sustainable strategy, which will fascilitate a gradual improvement of the level of service.

The transport policy must take account of both social and economic considerations. When an areais first supplied with motorised transport, the most relevant question with regards to transport policy is to decide on which mode of transport and which standard should be provided. This will be based primarily on social and financial considerations.”

(Thagesen, B. Highway and Traffic Engineering in Developing Countries)

This is another instance of adequate laws not translating into adequate application – the traffic system of Pakistan is decaying rapidly and the only hope of saving it lies not in increasing road space or building better roads but in changing the current road designs to ensure smoother traffic flow. The answer lies in finding alternatives to vehicular traffic such as building mass-transit systems or underground railways. It lies in experimenting with such radical steps as alternating business timings so that there is no need for all traffic to be on the roads at the same time – it lies in less corruption and real, good and honest efforts, for a change; efforts that help the common man of Pakistan.

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Written by redtribution

October 2, 2007 at 10:20 am

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