Peoples’ Mobility in Urban Pakistan: A Big Challenge

Pakistan is the most urbanized country of South Asian region. Officially rate of urbanization is around 36%. However, according to research by Ali Reza(2002) and Framework for Economic Growth by Planning Commission of Pakistan document, urbanization rate is more than 50%. Rapid urbanization and large concentration of population in few large cities present both challenges and opportunities for big cities. One of the challenges these cities are facing is frequent traffic jams in all nooks and corners of these cities.

How to get to and from home to work, market or school is simple enough but doing it in affordable and sustainable way imposes great challenges. All urban population daily suffers from the problem of traffic jams when we are actually not stuck in traffic but we are traffic. One has to spend one’s productive time in morning and evening on the roads. It is now an established fact that there is a direct link between traffic congestion and happiness. With increase in size of middle and lower middle class supplemented by cheap and affordable cars due to improvement in technology there has been significant increase in personal car use for almost last 10 years. Due to increase in commuting time people are left with less time for personal and social life. Cost of traffic congestion is very high not only for individuals but for the society as well. The Centre for Economics and Business Research, a London-based consultancy, and INRIX, a traffic-data firm, have estimated the impact of such delays on the British, French, German and American economies, and estimated it to be around 1% of GDP.

Outgoing government has heavily invested in road infrastructure. Why this investment in road infrastructure in cities failed to resolve our traffic problem in cities. One cant agree more that there is need to invest in road infrastructure to facilitate mobility which is one of the main daily activity of urban population. But investing only in flyovers, road-widening and one-way roads in the hope that it will resolve our traffic problems  is a flawed idea. In economics, there is a concept of induced demand which means that when you will supply more, people will demand more. Government engineered solutions failed as is the case in other countries of the world where traffic problems have not been resolved by widening roads.

Investment in metro-bus and orange trains are very good initiatives but these will not deliver unless a network of transport system is established besides making use of car costly.

Besides many other factors, unplanned urban sprawl encourages and facilitates car or personal transport usage. Other factors for traffic mess include poor road infrastructure, lack of observance of traffic regulations and absence of public transport on the roads.

All this has led to very high cost of traffic yet shortening it is not an easy task. One needs to think hard about charting out a strategy for keeping it as low as possible. This involves multifaceted approach ranging from rethinking from future city redesigning to congestion pricing. Other strategy might include some adjustment in office timings, regulated traffic, tax on single car drivers, promoting public transportation, charging parking fees.

Engineered solutions to resolve traffic congestion resulted into massive expansion in roads particular in Islamabad and in many other cities of Punjab during the last 10 years. This as per expectation led to more traffic on roads. In economics terminology it is called induced demand meaning that when supply is increased consumer demand more. Due to increase in demand for driving investment in road infrastructure has not helped to reduce traffic on roads. Despite spending lot of money on constructing new roads roads, overheads and expanding existing roads traffic congestion has either remained same or has increased. This has resulted into increase in wasteful fuel and time that could have been spent somewhere else. Moreover, this inflated cost of time and fuel leads to increase in cost of doing business.

Therefore, it is time to rethink about our strategy of resolving transport issue. Well thought economic solutions rather engineering solutions may be implemented to resolve congestion issue. These might include end to free parking system, road congestion tax during peak hours, city designing i-e vertical expansion rather horizontal, reasonable public transport network instead of metro bus only on one main route, and taxing more to single car users.

Congestion tax may be little odd  at first and many may argue that these are for developed countries but one should keep in mind that Singapore imposed congestion tax more than 30 years back when it was a developing country. A country like Pakistan which has rapidly growing middle class need to discourage more and more single driver cars on the roads to make cities sustainable and cities to act as engine of growth.

Encouraging bicycling and separate lanes for bicyclists and pedestrian will help in reducing traffic. Moreover, it will also facilitate car drivers to have more space on road for them to drive smoothly. Besides traffic reduction, cyclist and walkable cities have many health benefits as well. For this we need to design our cities on human scale instead of car cities. Cities on human scale are important for viability of successful public transport since it has economies of scale.

Ban Ki Moon said  “Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities”. There is urgent need to think about making our cities as people centric rather car centric and let us stop subsidizing car owners and taxing poor. Otherwise our cities will be hub of problems and not cities of opportunities since fast mobility is basic requirement for economic health of a city.

1.Ali, Reza, ‘Underestimating Urbanisation’ in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XXXVII, Nos.44-45, Nov. 2-9, 2002

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