Killer roads

Published June 12, 2023
The writer teaches urban planning at the University of Illinois.
The writer teaches urban planning at the University of Illinois.

IT is the stuff of horror movies: our roads are killers. They kill children and men and women, old and young. They kill animals. Occasionally, they spare a life but maim and disable instead.

Alongside runs our circus of the blind. Almost half of all road fatalities in Pakistan are pedestrians. Of course, they’re at fault. At other times, we blame driving habits. People drive too fast. Nobody obeys traffic laws. In brief, epiphanic moments, we blame the cops. Enforcement of traffic laws is poor. Nobody monitors speed, lane, and other traffic violations.

Amidst all this, the most basic fact remains unblemished: it is the roads, stupid.

Why, pray tell, do we need 10-lane dual carriageways in the middle of cities like Lahore and Islamabad? Why must we have signal-free ‘highways’ ruining some of our busiest commercial and residential areas? Traffic congestion, you say? Only in a fools’ paradise can roads fix congestion.

Our love for roads kills people, especially the most vulnerable.

On the contrary, roads only make congestion worse in the medium and long run. We have plenty of firsthand evidence from Pakistan. Wider, faster road infrastructure has incentivized urban sprawl, directly leading to more frequent and longer trips. Despite spending billions on urban expressways, average travel times and distances have increased.

Along with distances and speeds, road accidents and fatalities have also skyrocketed.

More traffic at higher speeds leads to more accidents. Everyone dies: drivers and passengers inside cars; drivers and passengers in buses and trucks; commuters on two-wheelers; and worst and most of all: pedestrians. The poorest people, who use these roads the least, are their biggest victims.

All hail our overlords, the district administrators, for their problem-solving. We will fence these roads! Pedestrians will not be allowed! Traffic flow shall not be hindered at any cost! And we will keep building new highways through our cities!

These measures are foolish at best, and deliberately unequal at worst. We must remember that most urban roads pass through existing residential and commercial activities. Infrastructure that prevents people from doing business across the road can effectively divide a large market into multiple smaller ones. With such division, we lose any economies of scope and scale that large markets can generate.

When they pass through residential areas, urban highways divide communities. They make it difficult, if not impossible for people to reach out to other people just because a road now sets them apart. They kill social bonds that may have taken decades to develop. They take away vital social safety nets from the most vulnerable.

It gets worse. More traffic leads to greater emissions, accelerating the environmental crisis and worsening problems like smog. Road traffic emissions are our biggest contributors to air pollution. An estimated 135,000 people lost their lives to air pollution in 2015 alone. It also takes away more than 42 million life years from Pakistanis — on average, every urban Pakistani loses a year of their life to traffic-induced bad air. Needless to say, the poorest are hit the worst.

A 2016 study estimated the cost of traffic fatalities and injuries in Pakistan at over $12.5 billion in a year. This number does not include direct and indirect costs of air pollution and opportunity costs of socioeconomic divisions that urban highways trigger. It does not include added costs of fuel imports required for longer and more frequent trips induced by road infrastructure.

All of this for what? Road-building is an extremely elitist fetish. Only around 10 per cent of all households own cars. Alas, the bulk of our development expenditure today only caters to a few! Who said anything about a financial crisis? So what do we do? Build more roads, of course. What did they say about expecting different results from repeating the exact same actions over and over again?

As always, there is the funnier part. This love for killer roads transcends all political, party and institutional divisions. It does not matter who does the king’s bidding and against whom — everybody who is in power is almost guaranteed to plan the next urban highway in their cities of influence. These projects continue through unexplained air crashes, regime changes, and changes in political governments triggered by electoral outcomes.

Our love for roads kills people, especially the most vulnerable. It kills society. It kills the economy. It kills the environment. It is infrastructure-induced genocide of everything good.

So onwards we march, straight to the next brand-new avenue in Islamabad and the next signal-free corridor in Lahore and the next expressway in Karachi. With unbelievable commitment, we ride the highway to our own extinction. Godspeed!

The writer teaches urban planning at the University of Illinois.

Twitter: @faizaanq

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2023

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