For the last many years, the nation is confronted with a new phenomenon. Traffic jams for couple of hours continuously on all festive occasions, like Eid and Independence Day, on roads leading to major picnic spots and tourist destinations. For instance, on July 31, 2014, the tourists and visitors to Murree had to brave traffic blockage for 13 long hours while returning from the hill station. Imagine the state of traffic on Eidul Fitr day (July 29) when, according to media reports, people thronged the hill resort in vehicles and motor cars numbering around 80,000.
Not only Murree, the tourist destinations all over the country, from Karachi to Khyber, were packed with families looking for recreation during the Eid holidays. In Islamabad, the tourist resorts and parks registered an extremely high number of visitors with Pir Sohawa, Daman-e-Koh, Marghzar Zoo, Japanese Gardens, Rawal Dam, Shahdara, Shakarparian and Lake View Park taking the lead. The situation in Kalam (Swat), Kaghan and the coastal areas of Karachi was not much different.
For want of healthy recreation spots nearer to their homes, the fun-starved people have no option but to visit famous picnic and tourist spots. But, due to lack of public transport, visitors have to undertake the journey in cars. Consequently, the number of vehicles on the roads far exceeds their capacity, creating gridlocks.
Murree is a popular hill resort. Experience tells that when people throng it, those engaged in business or providing services start fleecing the visitors. Not only they charge exorbitantly high tariff for shabby rooms but also overcharge for whatever unhygienic stuff they serve as food. Those who dare to complain, they often get a shock of their life when treated rudely by hotel/eatery owners or their Gullu Butt-like bouncers. The visitors do feel bitter, but they have no choice except bearing the humiliation. Their bitterness is further compounded by prolonged traffic jams that they experience while returning from the hill resort.
“We came here to spend some time in peace and enjoy nature while picnicking in serene surroundings bedecked by lush-green hills. But, we did not have any idea that on festive occasions those doing business in this place are on a mission to skim the visitors in a style that revives the memory of Shylock-like legendry characters,” stated a tourist after return from the hill resort.
In civilized societies, the room tariff of hotels is fixed and the management dare not charge people over and above the rates approved by government agencies. At eateries, the menu, with charges printed against dishes, are displayed on the restaurant entrances. Again, these rates remain in force without any regard for the influx of people.
Amongst Muslim states, Saudi Arabia is an example. Millions of people visit the Harmain Sharifain throughout the year; while the number of Zaireen increases manifold on the occasion of Hajj, but the charges for essential food items almost remain the same throughout the year. This shows that the vigilant minions of the kingdom do not allow restaurant owners to fleece the Zaireen and thus tarnish the image of the kingdom and its inhabitants.
In our country, it appears that either the state minions are not performing their duties or they consider it to be more profitable to side with the businessmen. Of course, such an attitude is not conducive for the promotion of tourism or earning a soft image for the country.
As regards traffic, introduction of efficient, comfortable, affordable and dependable mass transit system can minimise the difficulties and risks faced by road users. A simple example can illustrate how good mass transit systems can eliminate traffic chaos. Let us say a minor traffic jam in the morning consists of 60 cars at a signal and each car has on average two people in it, so there are a total of 120 people travelling on 60 cars. On the other hand, three large buses can accommodate about 120 people and take up a maximum area of only 18 cars. This means that the same road which shrinks in the presence of 60 cars can be more than enough even if these 120 people travel on three or four different buses.
Non-availability of efficient and dependable public transport compels the people to use private vehicles. As a result, the number of cars has been growing in the country, which is neither good for the environment nor recommendable in terms of financial drain on the country’s meagre foreign exchange resources.
To minimise traffic hazards, the developed countries focus on building and developing mass transit systems and adopting policies that discourage people to bring cars on roads during peak traffic hours. Even many developing countries have successfully followed the developed countries to solve the problems of traffic jams and environment degradation. One may quote the example of Brazil and Colombia, which have turned Curitiba and Bogota respectively into model cities for effective public transportation. The success of these cities in overcoming traffic jams and making road journey safer and easier is now being copied by many other countries.
Till the end of the 20th century, the traffic situation in Bogota (Colombia) was not different from the one obtaining in Pakistan. However, when Enrique Peñalosa became Bogotá’s mayor in 1998, he asked a question that is changing the way the global community now thinks about cities: “In Bogotá, where 85 per cent of the people do not use cars for their daily transport, is it fair that cars occupy most of the space on the streets?”
The answers he came up with have reshaped Bogotá, home to over seven million people, into a city so easy to negotiate by public transportation that people actually voted in favour of outlawing cars in the city, during rush hour, by 2015. In just a few short years, the metropolis has become a success story that enlightened city fathers around the world are now aiming to copy.
After taking office, Peñalosa implemented a number of measures designed to make living in the city easier. He built schools, paved roads, ran sewers to poor neighbourhoods, repaired parks, and instituted policies to restrict automobiles. At first, he was almost impeached for getting cars off sidewalks. But, Peñalosa pressed ahead with his transportation reforms.
And as the city became easier to navigate, support for his efforts grew. The city built 70 miles of bicycle routes and prohibited entry of cars in several streets, converting them into pedestrian malls. More drastically, the city began to restrict car use during rush hours, banning each car in the city from the downtown area two days a week, based on the license plate number. The results were dramatic: the average commute time dropped by 21 minutes, and pollution reduced significantly.
Since population growth in cities has outpaced all attempts to provide for roads, mass transit and other forms of public transport, the transformation in Bogotá is providing important cues for other cities around the world. There are about 300 cities in the developing world with populations of more than a million. These cities are not only saddled with the problem of how to move their people around, but also how to reduce transport generated pollution.
Peñalosa could succeed in Bogotá by focusing on improving the lot of people, not their cars. But, majority of the mega cities in the developing world, including Pakistan, continue to face the problem because their resources are being used to help the affluent avoid traffic jams rather than mobilizing the entire population and help people save hundreds of commuting hours annually and the country precious foreign exchange, which is largely being spent on oil import.