Friday, 17 February 2017

Mobility for all

Pakistan is obsessed with cars and big lovely roads for these cars. For decades, the biggest item in the PSDP has been roads. We have built many highways. Most big cities in Pakistan are connected by a highway. Checking on Google maps I found that travel time between cities in Pakistan is almost the same as similar distances in the US. People with cars are very happy and love to talk about how fast they travel between cities.  It is easier now to spend your time in metropolitan centers playing golf and occasionally visit your farm to collect your rents.

The presumed benefit of all this connectivity to GDP growth and welfare continues to elude the economy. Pakistan continues to grow between 3 and 5 percent far less than the 8+ percent required by our demographic trends. Yet the policymaker seems to think that roads will lead to economic growth.
Within cities especially the favorites there is a continued effort to reduce the travel time for cars. Roads are continuously widened, flyovers and underpasses added and signal-free corridors added to facilitate fast cars. Once again the rich are happy but there has been no visible productivity improvement such as increased output, more commercial and entrepreneurial activity. Inadequate GDP growth reveals that this investment too is not paying off. 

I remember senior policymakers were surprised after all this flyover-building and road-widening for cars, that poor were driven out of the city mobility.  Horse drawn carts, bicycles, pedestrians were left with no room. The extensive car infrastructure is anti-poor. Bear in mind in a city like Lahore with a population of over 10 million there are about 300,000 cars.

Now our leaders have woken up to building public transport. Who can disagree with that? We are building huge lines across Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, Multan and I suppose more will come.
Roughly speaking in Lahore, we have spent 2.5 billion on 2 lines.  Three more are proposed. Extrapolating from the existing costs, these will cost another 3 billion. The reason for the high cost is that the metro had to be elevated to preserve roads for cars. There is also an operating annual subsidy which will grow over time.

So, we are subsidizing cars with wide roads and flyovers, and subsidizing those that are lucky enough to live by metros. We are told there are 170,000 people using it daily the Green line that is operating now. Extrapolating again, we can assume that there may be about 1.5 million people when this metros system is completed.

This whimsical policy will at best cater to less than 15% of Lahore’s population by the time it is completed (assuming trend growth in population). 

Is there a better alternative? Indeed, there is. Let us talk about it. 

Enrique Penelosa the famous mayor of Bogota came to Pakistan and talked about it. But did anyone listen? Unfortunately, not! Such occasions turn into events for protocol and key people miss the message. 

Penelosa famously pointed out that cities need to balance the right to mobility with the right to city public space. Prioritizing cars and giving them the wide roads while building metros on platforms to provide more space to cars at a cost of 5 billion USD has many implications:
  1. cars have most of the city mobility space;
  2. most city funding even that for building the elevated metro has been used for preserving the status and speed of cars;
  3. all this expenditure for cars means there is little money for other important activities such as health care, education and community development. 

Penelosa points to mobility as a right for all and for a city to provide some equity in mobility. It is well known that the mobility for the poor is mostly walking and bicycling. Even in our cities, studies show that the poor mainly walk or cycle. Yet our whimsical policies favoring cars has seen to it that there is no space for the poor. 

To make it convenient for cars, the metro is elevated and there is no pedestrian or bicycle access to the metro. Poor pedestrians must dodge cars and then climb 3 floors to catch the metro.

What is needed is a change of focus from cars to mobility for all.  One car takes the space of about 100 pedestrians when you consider the space that must be kept free in front back. In that space 15-20 bicycles can be operated. A bus with a about 80-100 passengers takes about the space of 3 cars.  
  
Why then should cars be subsidized and not priced? Most big cities smaller than Lahore and Karachi are pricing the use of the car to discourage car travel and encourage other forms of travel. Not only does this meet the Penelosa principle of equity in mobility it also saves city resources for the many other more important uses.

How should cars be priced?
  •            Congestion charges to enter and operate in a city center-- the denser more commercial parts of the city.
  •        In dedicated lanes, they can go faster but at a price. They can even be charged for every mile they use dedicated fast lane.
  •        Meaningful metered parking charges for use of appropriately designated parking spaces.

Technology allows such charges to be collected very cheaply through mobile phones. Such charges allow car users to rationally consider the use of their cars and planning trips to minimize cost to them.
Charging cars in this manner frees up road space which can then be used to
  •        Develop paths for pedestrians and cyclists.
  •        Provide more dedicated bus routes without building elevated tracks.
  •             Provide space for street commerce with kiosks for poor entrepreneurship.

 t   With this little tweak in policy we could have better cities and provide cheaper more people-friendly metros buses. People would also be provided people with more choices of transport such as walking and bicycling. We could also do away with the elevated tracks and flyovers that increasingly are viewed as ugly and expensive city dividers.


It has the added advantage of saving large sums that are now being spent on roads and elevated metros while also giving the city an additional source of revenue (tolls and congestion charges) with which to provide better city services.