Western models cannot solve our traffic problem

Friday August 27 2010

By Emurwon Olupot

In the Saturday Monitor of August 21, Gawaya Tegulle wrote a controversial article titled “Uganda’s Roads: Driving a car with a bicycle mentality” in which he blamed both the leadership of this country and its citizens for the failure to build wider roads to accommodate more traffic.

For Tegulle, we “see near, think small and plan for only today” in stark contrast with the broad-minded and forward-thinking Americans who have achieved spectacular progress in road infrastructure development. His conclusion was suited for its purpose: we drive cars, but entertain a bicycle mentality.

I could easily tell where his sentiments were coming from- the rise of traffic congestion which wastes people’s time, the noise, fumes, pollution and visual intrusion of the cars, the ugly traffic scenes and the poor safety conditions- all of which have denied citizens the pleasantness of urban life.

However, a number of issues deserve closer attention. First, putting a lot of emphasis on road infrastructure development to solve traffic congestion in towns, as argued, could be misleading. Exactly 50 years ago, the British government saw this conceptual flaw and chose to commission a study on traffic in towns published in 1963.

The report argued for a fundamental shift in attitudes towards roads, by recognising that there are environmental disbenefits associated with traffic and any large increase in capacity could exacerbate congestion, not solve it.

They saw the linkage between transportation and environmental degradation well before the Earth Summit of 1992 which gave it an international boost. The message carried was simple: wider roads attract more traffic. The key issue, therefore, was how to fight head-on the “car-owning democracy” which we have fallen in love with.


Second, most urban transport problems are a result of inappropriate road infrastructure planning models imported from western cities. The local histories, traditions, cultures, geographic conditions and political organisational arrangements are rarely recognised, and when done, they are relegated to a peripheral status during planning analysis.

The result of all these developments is that road infrastructure planning remains restricted to addressing the needs of vehicles, not urban citizens. This is the case even where city planners know that at least 60 per cent of the urban dwellers rely on non-motorised transport. And, therefore, excluded from the planning process, their problems are never addressed.

Related to the above is another issue of playing “catch up” with the western industrialised economies. The adoration for western cities has been so graphically portrayed in Tegulle’s article to a point when it speaks for itself. Yet, nothing is more dangerous for planners to “benchmark” and imitate examples from countries which are radically different from their own.

Finally, there is need to recognise that the traffic problem in cities is not awaiting a single solution “of broadmindedness and forward-thinking”, but represents a social situation which needs to be dealt with by polices patiently applied over a long period of time to be reviewed on a regular basis to accommodate new developments. Any rush through the change process, outside the reality of political systems, is likely to fail and could worsen the existing problems.

Mr Olupot is the chairman, Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport in Uganda