Lahore’s road to nowhere
Guest Post by Ahmad Iqbal Chaudhary
Lahore is on a dangerous path towards a future of urban highways, underpasses and flyovers that will eventually suffocate the city. The Lahore Development Authority has recently awarded contracts worth Rs 1.5 billion to construct signal-free corridors on Jail Road and Main Boulevard with two new underpasses and several signal-free U-turns to improve traffic speeds.
In a city where 40 per cent of total trips are taken by foot, and merely 8 per cent by private car, should public infrastructure spending really facilitate car owners? Increasing road capacity is not the solution to tackle congestion. In fact it adds more demand for vehicular travel eventually resulting in more congestion and emissions.
The logic is simple: more lanes on Lahore’s roads will increase the demand for travel, leading to additional car purchases and resulting in heightened traffic congestion.
Infrastructure projects are generally considered to be an important trigger for economic development. However, one is forced to question the need for more underpasses, flyovers and road lanes in Lahore.
Lahore has a long history of expensive car-centric infrastructure projects such as the Jinnah flyover, the expansion of Main Boulevard and Jail Road, and underpasses along the canal. However, all of these projects have proved to be counterproductive. Lahore’s air quality is deteriorating sharply, there is more congestion on the roads, and these projects have had a devastating effect on local commerce and human activity.
We are continuing to spend billions of rupees in expanding road capacity when it clearly hasn’t worked. This approach of prioritizing car-centric urban development will make traffic congestion, air pollution, and road safety—already major challenges—worse. The lesson is clear: we need to avoid the mistakes of the past and invest in the right types of infrastructure today.
Cities worldwide have been unsuccessful in alleviating traffic congestion by increasing the road space available to cars. In fact, most cities are now exploring ways to mitigate the economic and environmental damage caused by car dependence.
In many cities—like New York City in the 1960s and San Francisco in the late 1950s—community-led movements were able to mobilise the public to prevent neighbourhood destruction and urban highway development. In other cities—like Seoul and Bogotá—urban highways had to be torn down at a huge cost many decades later.
Transport infrastructure projects should also be carefully examined on the grounds of equity, especially when projects are funded by public money. Projects that benefit a wealthy few are an extreme form of regressive spending and when coupled with a regressive tax regime – as is the case in Pakistan – these projects effectively redistribute resources from the poor to the wealthy.
Planners in Lahore have considered pedestrian bridges an appropriate response to the needs of those traveling by foot. However, pedestrian bridges have frequently proved inaccessible and inconvenient to most pedestrians. These bridges are hard to cross and encourage jaywalking; generating additional safety concerns for pedestrians, and creating hazards for cars passing underneath.
This lack of understanding reflects poorly on our planners and reveals a strong class bias in infrastructure planning. Whether intentional or not, it seems like Lahore is currently being planned for the automobile, and not for people.
Metro bus projects in Lahore and Islamabad are a step in the right direction but they only scratch the surface. Lahore, with a population of over 10 million has a single bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor stretching 27 km – compared to Ahmedabad, a city with less than half of Lahore’s population, has 12 corridors spanning over 85km and plans to develop five new corridors.
Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, is one of the foremost advocates of using road space in a more equitable and efficient way. He has equated BRT buses that zoom by cars stuck in traffic as “democracy at work”.
If Lahore’s road space does not equitably meet the needs of public transport users, it does even less for bicyclists, who account for 5 percent of trips according to the Lahore urban transport master plan. Bicyclists and pedestrians put together make up almost half of all trips in Lahore, but they get next to nothing when it comes to transport infrastructure and investment.
Building a comprehensive public transport network takes time. But in the short-term, it’s not hard to improve connectivity around BRT stations by providing feeder buses, more park and ride facilities, and integrating the right kinds of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.
Additionally, our urban planners need to consider congestion pricing and higher parking fees commensurate with property prices to manage traffic congestion in the city. Small interventions like this can go a long way in protecting vulnerable populations, improving air quality, reducing traffic congestion, and making the city a more vibrant place.
Ahmad Iqbal Chaudhary is a Research Fellow at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities in Washington, DC. Twitter: @aichaudhary | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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