Friday, June 18, 2010

Traffic Chaos in Lahore– a public policy failure

Traffic in Lahore city is chaotic, unruly and roads are often jam packed with both motorized and non-motorized vehicles fleet. Due to its magnanimity, rising ‘traffic’ poses a big challenge for all those institutes responsible for planning, devising and implementing transport policies.

Traffic is chaotic because drivers, whether of a bus, a wagon, a car, a rickshaw or a motorcyclist, like driving in their own peculiar way. They are always in such a hurry that most of the time they forget whether they intended to turn left or right. They don’t mind parking their vehicles on sides of congested roads without realizing that their parked vehicle may end up blocking the entire traffic flow. In case of a traffic jam, almost everyone on road, rather than waiting in vain, would worsen the traffic jam by self assuming the responsibility of the traffic wardens and devising a way out for their vehicle only. They also love honking on roads where government has advertised in Urdu “honking is prohibited on this road’.

Perhaps, following no rule is the new rule on roads. Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi thinks that driving license issuing authority is also to be blamed for the behavior of drivers on roads. “Currently, bribing is the standard operating procedure to obtain a driving license. Wanna-be drivers or car owners, who seek a driving license through bribe, do not have to go through the standard test and their driving licenses are delivered at their doorsteps. It is a governance failure”, he added.

Besides people’s behavior on road, there are other multiple issues which are adding up and pointing toward a public policy failure. Firstly, private vehicles (including cars and motorcycles) are increasing at an alarming rate of 12.2% per annum. Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi, a senior town planner was of the view that, for the past six years, the car ownership rate is growing at least five times more than the population growth rate of the country. We have also witnessed the widening of roads to accommodate the increasing number of motorized traffic. “This rapid increase in number of cars is straining the capacity of the existing road infrastructure in Lahore. But widening of roads by reducing the size of green belts is not a viable solution”, pronounced Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi.

One major reason for increase in number of vehicles (cars or motorcycles) is the absence of an efficient public transport system. According to the Lahore Rapid Mass Transit study 2006, there are only 1053 buses for approximately 200,000 regular commuters. In addition to buses, there are 518 mini buses, 475 mini wagons, 34156 rickshaws plying on Lahore roads but still the supply side of the existing public transport system does not match the growing public demand. Secondly, the condition of all public buses, mini buses or wagons is very terrible. Bus services such as New Khan and Daewoo, which started some ten years back, have increased their fare many times but apparently maintenance of these buses is the least priority.

Thirdly, is the role of the corporate sector which has exploited the existing gap created due to the wretched public transport system, by offering easy car leasing options to people. Now anyone with a few months of job experience can lease out a car. Neither the corporate sector nor buyers think for a second the environmental consequences of selling or buying cars. Of course, the former is aiming at more profit and the later their own convenience.  

Fourthly, there is the issue of governance or the lack of it, which is exacerbating the problem. For instance, there are number of government bodies responsible for managing and planning traffic and transport issues of the city. Some of these departments include Punjab Transport Department, Traffic Engineering and Planning Authority, City district government, Urban Unit of Planning and Development Department, City Traffic Police etc. “roles and responsibilities of all these departments’ overlap. Additionally, they work in isolation and coordination is completely missing”, says Dr. Ghulam Abbas Anjum, Chairman of City and Regional Planning Department.

A joint-up government is the new approach, which requires involvement of all relevant government departments, has been employed in countries like Australia to solve wicked problems such as traffic congestion. Nevertheless, such an approach is completely missing in case of city Lahore. Here, the Transport Department of the Government of Punjab is developing a transport plan of the city but unfortunately, Traffic Engineering and Planning Authority has not been taken on board prior to embarking on any future transport plan. It appears that the introduction of joint-up government concept would take some time in countries like Pakistan.

Similarly, the knowledge of experts, working in various government departments of Lahore, about existing national framework for transport is also a matter of great concern. I talked to Mr. Mohammad Ozair, Senior Transport Specialist of the Urban Unit, Planning and development department and asked whether Pakistan has any national transport policy. Mr. Ozair was completely ignorant about any such policy at the national level even though such a national level policy was formulated through assistance of Asian Development Bank.

But what experts say to resolve the traffic congestion issue in Lahore. Dr. Shabih-ul-Hassan Zaidi thinks that policy planners should adopt the multi-nuclei concept of town planning. This concept entails decentralization of town centers by developing new town centers. This will reduce the traffic congestion by distributing traffic to multiple town centers. By doing so, the average travel time would also be reduced. On the contrary, Dr. Ghulam Abbas Anjum, Chairman of City and Regional Planning Department, was of the viewpoint that the only viable option is to provide an efficient public transport system to the city dwellers. “Traffic congestion would be reduced to a great extent if government considers the option of rapid mass transit bus or rapid mass transit rail system. Lahore Rapid Mass Transit Rail Project (LRMT) is already on the table but there were serious delays due to unavailability of funds”, pronounced Dr. Ghulam Abbas Anjum.

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