Nov 1, 2009

Subsidising roads for the affluent

The new mantra accepted by both the provincial and federal governments on urban development is road widening and construction of flyovers and underpasses to address the problem of growing traffic congestion arising from greater prosperity. In this writer’s view, the road network in large cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad visibly reflects the class division in these agglomerations. And the urban transport policies of both the provincial and federal governments are heavily skewed in favour of owners of motor cars as opposed to other types of road users.

In these cities, cars are used as transport by perhaps one in five users of roads who then control more than 75 per cent of the road space. The growing traffic congestion because of the rapidly increasing population of cars is contributing to a sharp decline in average vehicle speeds. The prescription selected by these governments for attending to this problem has been further widening of roads and more flyovers and underpasses, a policy akin to loosening one’s belt to treat obesity. With this passion to pander to the demands and needs of this more vocal class of road users, no serious thought or effort has gone into the improvement of public transport facilities.

Large parts of the city are losing space for footpaths to the broadening of roads or for the parking of motor cars. While the poor find it extremely difficult to travel from one part of the city to the other in a reasonable time, the richer segments of the urban population plying cars control more and more public space and resources for widening roads of which they will be the main users. In other words, one class of transport is being pampered as more and more common urban space or prime commercial land is devotedto the exclusive needs of just one small class of citizens — the owners of automobilesand users of other forms of transport (largely the less privileged) who rely on modes of transport represented by buses, rickshaws and walking.

As a consequence of this policy, the rich residents of Lahore are being subsidised both by the impoverished households and the disfavoured taxpayers of smaller towns and cities (themselves deprived of even a decent, rationally maintained road network) as scarce public revenue resources are invested in such infrastructure while slum dwellers have to contend with unsafe and contaminated drinking water (the primary source of many common illnesses taking up a large share of their already meager earnings) and unsubsidised urban public transport to get to their workplaces.

Finally, as mentioned above, the adoption of such an approach has also resulted in prime commercial land (which could have been used for stimulating economic activity and job creation) being used for widening of roads and, in the case of say Lahore, constructing motorways in the centre of the metropolis so that the well-to-do can travel swiftly and un-hindered from one place to another. This diversion has also stalled the enlargement of domestic commerce critical for the development of products and skills that eventually will support promotion of exports of such goods and services. The latter outcome is partly because, unlike the approach embraced the world over, we have impeded the growth of the concept of a walk-in customer and encouraged the restrictive concept of a drive-in customer (especially without the concept of malls largely owing to flawed building and zoning regulations) which is constraining the development of a buoyant, dynamic domestic commerce sector. And while commercial activity is impeded by obsolete zoning and building regulations, failure of governments to enforce traffic laws and develop mass transport systems (consider that large retail stores in London, Hong Kong and New York are not required by law to create parking spaces in their own buildings, the governments are simply managing traffic and enforcing relating laws) no such regulation checks the growth of mosques and madrassahs in any part of the city — their growth proceeds unchecked, unopposed and untaxed, although the rule book on commercialisation is thrown with great relish at others, seemingly less politically powerful, for example, low-cost private schools.

By Shahid Kardar

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