By Anjum Altaf
This is an essay about Lahore but it could be about any city in South Asia because it deals with an issue that is common to them all – traffic congestion. How do we propose to deal with traffic congestion that is growing all the time, what do we hope to achieve, what is the price we are willing to pay, and how do we know what we are doing makes sense?
The controversy in Lahore centers round the fate of a branch of the Bambawala-Ravi-Bedian (BRB) Canal (a 37 mile long waterway built by the Mughals and upgraded by the British in 1861) that runs through the city and is more than a cultural heritage for the citizens. The Lahore Canal is a unique linear park that serves as one of the few public green belts and the only free swimming pool for the majority of the city residents as can be seen in this photo essay.
The roads on both sides of the canal have already been widened once to accommodate traffic growth. This has restricted access to the waterway and made it hazardous to reach. Now the city proposes to add more lanes on both sides turning the road into an expressway. This would not only cut off all access to the canal but also mark the end of the green belt. Not surprisingly, this has sparked a conflict between the environmentalists on one side and the developmentalists and the city administration on the other.
The arguments of the environmentalists are the obvious ones and are presented here. The typical response of the developmentalists is along the following lines:
The Canal itself is not threatened. It will stay. So will the trees alongside the canal. It is that some of the trees in the green belt alongside the canal will have to go. This is the price that we have to pay for growth of the city of Lahore. Lahore city is choking and needs to expand… So please think of the future. In 5-10 years time after the road is expanded, the replanted trees would be back in bloom for our future generation to enjoy in a wider expanded Lahore.
Which side is correct and how does one resolve this controversy?
Let us leave aside the issue of whether constructing roads translates directly into development in any way. Let us leave aside the environmental implications of paving over green space and the unique value of linear urban parks that most cities spend money to construct. Let us also leave aside the issue of whether the public needs to be consulted in such decisions. Let us focus solely on the issue of traffic congestion. There is no doubt that the number of vehicles is increasing rapidly in South Asian cities leading to a worsening of traffic congestion. But is increasing road capacity an intelligent response to this challenge?
It would be so if one could show that road capacity can increase faster than the road space required by the number of vehicles added in any given interval of time. Any calculation will show that this cannot be the case which is why even cities like Beijing with very aggressive road construction programs are still choked by traffic. This is a simple calculation for traffic engineers and planners: take the road space required to accommodate one additional vehicle and multiply it by the number of vehicles expected to be added in a given time period. Now compute the cost of adding the required road capacity and see if the available resources can sustain the needed expansion. This simple calculation ignores the fact that each additional private vehicle adds to the need for additional parking space both at the origin and the destination. One only needs to think about the problems of urban parking to realize the significance of this added complexity and the consequences of ignoring it in the planning process.
Building roads is a simple-minded solution that is fated to fall behind the problem in the absence of other measures. Nor does it do anything for the overwhelming majority of people who do not own private vehicles but suffer the consequences of the congestion caused by their proliferation. Think about the situation of an unskilled worker who has to reach one end of the city from the other. How would the increased road capacity help him even if he or she agreed to give up the amenity of a free public park or swimming pool in return?
What are needed are smart initiatives that address the heart of the traffic congestion issue: How do we transport the maximum number of people with the minimum number of vehicles so as to minimize the need for additional road capacity? It should be obvious that public transit is the solution one should be considering. Most cities in South Asia are unable to afford underground metros or even above ground light rail alternatives. But Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a very feasible option that has worked effectively in many cities. Modern buses running on CNG cut down on urban air pollution at the same time.
In addition to BRT, a much greater reliance on taxis is also a part of the solution for the simple reason that unlike private vehicles that are parked most of the day, taxis remain in circulation. Thus a taxi transports many more persons per day than a private vehicle and needs only half the parking space. Lahore is perhaps unique amongst cities in that it has no public taxis at all and this amazing fact has missed the attention of the city authorities obsessed with constructing new roads.
The bottom line is that it is not the case that there is no need for any new road construction at all. But smart urban growth requires that road construction be integrated into an intelligent plan that is focused on transporting the maximum number of people with the minimum number of vehicles at the lowest economic and environmental cost.
Can we expect our city authorities to show that they understand the nature of the problem?