Amjad, a young bricklayer from Lahore — a city brimming with a population of 11 million — bought a motorcycle last week; the very first vehicle ever to be bought by anyone in his household.
For him, it was a dream come true. “Never before has anyone in my family owned something like this. I feel proud now that I can take my children out on a ride,” he says, casting a glance at his children, who seem visibly overjoyed at the prospect.
It might be a dream come true for Amjad and his family but the motorcycle he bought is part of a bigger problem that he has yet to come to terms with. He has now joined the fleet of vehicles that the roads of Pakistan are already unequipped to handle.
According to a Gallup Pakistan roundup, in 2015 the number of registered motorcycles — two-wheelers — was 12,177,400. The roundup further shows that from the years 2000 to 2015, there was a 268 per cent increase in the total number of registered motor vehicles in the country, with motorcycles increasing by a significant 439 per cent.
Part of the traffic congestion issue is the easy accessibility of vehicles. “This is mainly happening because people from the lower middle income class can now acquire motorcycles on easy installments — and even on rent,” says Kashif Imran, a traffic warden in Lahore. But according to the unflagging warden, this increase is directly proportional to the number of road accidents in the city. “A lack of proper motorcycle lanes unfortunately means a convergence of different vehicles on one road. This, undeniably, leads to congestion and eventual accidents.”
Noted lawyer and environmentalist Ahmad Rafay Alam says that the trend started way back in the 1990s, with the introduction of generous car leasing terms. “None of our cities have effective public transport, and we are only now coming to terms with the impact of several years of leased automobiles: traffic that has become uncontrollable.”
“There is no upper limit on the number of vehicles — including motorcycles — issued to the general public,” says sustainable cities expert, Naveed Cheema. “Public transport is available but due to its largely disorganised structure, the prospect of owning an individual means of transport seems much more viable to the general public.”
He says that one of the major failures in urban design is the evident absence of quality pedestrian paths in developed areas. “They are so uncomfortably narrow that people prefer using a motorcycle over walking to their destination.”
The Urban Unit CEO, Dr Nasir Javed, blames the lack of public transport for increased traffic on roads. “Mass transit lines, alone, are likely to be insufficient in populous cities like Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Faisalabad. Hence, normal bus service is absolutely essential to cover short distances and those routes where the metro bus system is not operational.”
According to Tanvir Qayyum, former professor/chairman of the Department of Transportation and Management, UET, governments have consistently failed to follow through plans formed to tackle the traffic congestion issue: “We devised a master plan a couple of years ago with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), but it was never implemented.”
The government’s dilemma between exponentially increasing traffic, whilst avoiding politically difficult charges or bans on urban motorists is, however, quite visible, according to Cheema.
“Our whole focus is on infrastructure that will facilitate motorists,” he adds. “No effort is made in finding out what the requirements of the general public are, as far as feeder routes are concerned. The input of the people is crucial. That is what’s making rapid transit systems abroad so successful: they are driven by need.”
The problem presented by the tremendous increase in traffic is complex, and requires an extensive scheme that addresses everything from infrastructure to energy to urban planning.
“Vehicles must eventually be driven out of cities to tackle Pakistan’s air pollution crisis, not just merely discouraged,” adds Alam. He says that people have an innate preference for walking; if they can easily get around as such, they’ll prefer that to all other modes of travel.
“Traffic is relieved by public transport and measures such as congestion — charging, traffic management, and provision for alternative transport modes. Parking rates should be much higher than what they currently are. When you can park a car for Rs30 for the whole day, you won’t think twice before bringing your car out on the roads,” he adds.
However, experts agree that a lot more will have to be done than merely discouraging vehicle owners.
In Dr Javed’s words, we must “demarcate areas of 400m radius around all the 54 mass transit stations in Lahore and change the construction regulations in that zone to redevelop its buildings into high-density, medium-rise, mixed-use properties.”
Urban planners and experts agree on redesigning cities in a manner that results in diminished dependence on automobiles. “We need to redesign cities so people are encouraged to cover distances by walking,” says Alam, adding that traffic woes are relieved by allowing mixed-use residential areas, and reducing the need for motorised transport.
Enabling people to move around in a regulated manner, through public transport, is crucial, according to Dr Javed. “People will automatically use less motorcycles if they can move around cities safely and efficiently through a clean and expanded mass transit system — served by buses — and by as much active transport in the form of walking and cycling as is feasibly possible.”
According to Qayyum, road congestion can be resolved only when traffic is properly managed during peak hours. “Pakistan’s problem is mixed traffic. We have all sorts of vehicles on the same roads; this adds to congestion, and thus, confusion.
“In order to tackle the increasing number of motorcycles on Pakistan’s roads, the separate lane rule for motorcycles and heavy vehicles must be strictly implemented.”
Motorcyclists have a story to tell as well. “This is the only transport easily available to us,” says 34-year-old Shahid, a school teacher in Lahore, looking at his shiny new CD 70.
“We would prefer something else, but every other option is strictly unaffordable. You need to understand this savari (ride) is quite inconvenient; it’s not something we’d choose. But in the absence of a proper bus system for those like us, we can’t do anything else.”
As with most things in Pakistan, it seems much easier for general public to just go with the flow.
“This is just how the system works in our country,” chuckles Amjad. “If you look at the bright side — and we’re not left with much else to do — isn’t it better in some ways? No space on the road goes to waste!”