May 3, 2009

Slumdog Urbannaires

We seem to lack innovative ideas to overcome the traffic mess
By Soufia A Siddiqi
It took the students of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) the untimely death of one of their own to spill out onto the streets for protesting against the stupor that Pakistan's policing system seems to be in. It took the death of a college girl in Karachi for most of the country's newspapers to bring the issue of traffic mismanagement to their front pages. These incidents are not the first of their kind. They reinforce the fact that, despite millions being pumped into the development of infrastructure, urban traffic is a growing nightmare. But it is only when it touches a nerve that the government is asked questions that should have been raised long ago.
Consider the Lahore Ring Road Project, started over two decades ago. In 1992, the actual cost of the 77-km six-lane project stood at Rs7 billion. Now, it is touching Rs150 billion. Why? The project has already experienced delays four times due to design changes to cater to the whims of one important personality or the other. Allocated about Rs40 billion already and expecting as much more money in the near future, its construction started only four years ago, the most developed part of which connects the Motorway (M2) to Lahore City through the Bund Road.
The extension of that road leading towards Shahdra is just a turbulent, jolting ride, equivalent to some of the finest engineering in Western amusement park rides. To boot, there are no overhead pedestrian bridges. Many of the deaths caused along this route are tucked away into the inner pages of city news, still others not even reported.
Here is another favourite of the urban planners. The Asian Development Bank (ADB)-sponsored Lahore Rapid Mass Transit System Project (LRMTS) is estimated to cost $2.4 billion for the Green Line. The Orange Line, currently under construction, is estimated at $2.1 billion. The feasibility study of the project alone has already cost the Government of the Punjab Rs768 million. Remarkably, however, no PC-1 can be traced down for this initiative.
According to a 2003 study by Imran and Low, the master plan drawn up by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) on Lahore's transportation system in 1992 first envisioned the establishment of the Light Rail Transit system (a predecessor of the LRMTS) by 2010. In nominal terms then, when $1 converted to Rs21.70, the fare by 2010 was estimated to hover at Rs30. Now, the Urban Unit believes it can recover its monumental costs by charging fares as high as Rs120-130 per person in 2009 terms.
In which year the project will be completed is still a mystery! But in the face of crashing purchasing power, inadequate compensation for those whose homes must be razed and public agitation at having to pay even Rs40 on the local bus, just how much deliverance can be expected from this project? It is not just fancy projects that speak of the poor health of urban traffic. According to the Urban Gazette, published by the Urban Unit in Lahore, an estimated 610,000 people travel along the Ferozepur Road, where only 218 buses were reported to be running.
What the Gazette would not tell the average reader is the way these buses race each other, often breaking their side mirrors and windshields; or that the female compartments constitute only a third of a bus, whereas women use buses as frequently as men and usually travel with children; or even that the overhead handrail is too high for women, which is why they generally crowd around the entrance pole. And if the Taliban had a good look at the way male conductors jostle themselves through the women packed into buses, they would not be very pleased. On this occasion, even the women would side with them.
According to the local government, the introduction of 2,400 traffic wardens in Lahore ought to solve the problem. But in a study conducted by this scribe, though lead concentration in blood samples of these traffic wardens do not exceed the internationally prescribed limit of 10 microgram / deciliter, current levels range from 6-7; this too, after only two years in service. Another study conducted a few years ago on the members of the previous traffic police service found the average concentration hovered at 35 micrograms / deciliter of blood. Such alarming figures only point in the direction that the health of the current young and fresh batch of traffic police is headed in a few years' time.
What the government can do instead, for a change, is listen to its people. The people, too, must start talking. Tell the government that the city needs pedestrian-friendly facilities, not as elaborate as the ones on Jail Road. It needs the strict enforcement of a carpool and bus-lane policy, especially for schools. It needs a balancing act between increasing the number of buses on the road and congestion-taxing vehicles above a particular engine size.
It needs simple three-inch high footpaths running along the main arteries of the city. It needs to grant traffic warden stations autonomy from police stations, so that civilians can stop associating traffic policemen with crime and corruption. But more important than any of these suggestions is the one that says the government needs to let architects, town planners, urban designers, economists and environmental scientists do their job. We know that politics and pennies certainly have not. The world acknowledges the existence of inner-city slums in all urban cities. But if the traffic planning policies in Lahore are anything to go by, we might soon all have to don the label of Slumdog Urbannaires.

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