Thursday, April 7, 2011

City as a time capsule: Urban highway construction mania still booming in 2011

Transport planning and policy in Lahore Pakistan today, as reported by public policy consultant Hassaan Ghazali, looks like something that was dragged out of a moss-covered time capsule on a hot day: a tawdry reminder of the kind of old mobility thinking, interest-wrangling and mindless investments of hard-earned taxpayer money that challenged and in many cases helped destroy the urban fabric of cities across North America and in many other parts of the world half a century ago.

It would be heart-warming to think that such a time was long past. After having paid the high price, cities like Seoul, Portland, Paris and many others eventually managed to catch their breath and reverse the perverse trends of the much-heralded Urban Highway Age that had rent havoc on their cities. A terribly painful and costly process.  But as Mr.  Ghazali reports, it's 2011 these ideas are very much alive and breathing fire in Lahore and many cities across the Subcontinent. And, sad to say, in many other parts of the world as well. How can we do our bit to reverse these trends?  Well, by reporting on it widely, fairly and with great persistence.

Vandalizing my Kalma:
Finding order in Lahore’s transport chaos

- By Hassaan Ghazali, Lahore.

Technology has always been critical to solving the problems of our troubled cities, and our government is known to use it liberally whenever convenient.

While vandals from the left and the right have already left quite an impression on our urban areas, it appears that there’s a lot more where that came from. No matter how tall ones claims of austerity, prudence or good governance become, the taxpayer will always end up footing the bill for developments that cause more problems than they were intended to solve. And so it is with Lahore’s Kalma Chowk.

It is rather naïve for the government to regard the technological forefront to end at underpasses and expressways, for the public interest isn’t served until laws are crafted and amended to enable or obstruct technology; or government institutions create processes that conduct, or are conducted by, technology; or until society willingly absorbs and reacts to technology.

Still struggling to manage the road at ground level, it seems the government would go to great lengths to send us under and over instead. Perhaps all that time the government spent at a sweat lodge with the concrete worshipping cult of NESPAK has it behaving like Quick Draw McGraw—shooting first, asking questions later. What else would justify all the haste in getting civil works started at Kalma Chowk.

Engineering standards aside, it’s not as if there are a plethora of laws that apply whenever a fly-over or underpass is built. Of all the procedures the government needs to follow, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is one of the more important formalities that have been overlooked. One was looking forward to a lawful public hearing and a good old protest had the government been kind enough to follow its own procedures but alas.

While the judicial systems we have come so much to rely on (perhaps wrongfully so) may decide the fate of this project wisely, the million dollar question remains—do we even need the developments proposed for Kalma Chowk? If you must get into the details, it’s a 2.3 billion rupee question which the taxpayer will answer for a game show host who would make Anne Robinson shudder.

Another question arises. Could this money not have been spent better by getting some nice air conditioned public buses on the road in time for the summer heat? Or perhaps providing the traffic police with the tools to regulate and manage road users? With all due respect to the good people of Lahore, the government has failed to control the chaos on our roads with good transport management practices adopted in countries all over the world. A propensity to invest in brick and mortar signifies that the government is only interested in facilitating car ownership and is less concerned about the state of the regulatory framework governing the existing fleet of vehicles.

This evidences the tendency of the government to resort to the deployment of end-of-stream technological solutions such as fly-overs to solve our urban problems, almost always at the expense of improved regulation, better public transport systems and facilitation of non-motorized means of transport.

Substantial developments towards policy objectives (if such a thing exists) may also be achieved if transport is treated as more of a land use issue, and less of a technological one. To put it simply, by regulating urban spaces, land use and management enables policy-makers to alter a road user’s enjoyment of rights upon that land, inevitably directing the type of transport brought onto these spaces and how it behaves. Indeed, decentralization of power and the affluent nature of Lahore create the possibilities to make land use and management more effective, stringent, and profitable. One does however lodge a caution against indecisive and unstable governments which, by adopting weak or arbitrary land use policies, can send the wrong signals to the market.

What makes the situation in Lahore all the more alarming is a disconnect between efforts to produce the Lahore Transport Master Plan and whimsical development projects announced by the government. A transport system that makes markets and individuals accessible to each other is a desirable objective, especially in developing countries where a wealth gap between the affluent and the poor requires us to be sensitive to the impacts our interventions have on the socio-economic well-being of others. Not so desirable are systems that can only widen this gap by making access unaffordable, adversely affecting urban aesthetics and creating inequitable partitions in neighbourhoods and habitats. Unfortunately, the Kalma Chowk improvement appears to be a largely class-based intervention where the use of cars will seriously impact other city dwellers in a variety of ways such as the loss of green spaces, transit times, fatal traffic accidents and air pollution.

Experts suggest that there is an intimate connection between transport and the land-use characteristics of any city. Very low urban densities can force people to use private transport for most trip as public transport is difficult and expensive to supply and walking and cycling cannot cope with the long distances. In such cities, cars and motorcycles are thus the only really convenient modes of transport.

On the other hand, high density urban environments make public transport more profitable and walking and cycling more viable. While Lahore clearly belongs to the latter category, it appears our decision makers are denser than the cities they govern.

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Hassaan Ghazali is a consultant on public policy. He lives and works in Lahore. His motto is: "When conditions are right, things go wrong." This article appeared today in Pakistan Today and is reprinted with the kind permission of the author .

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