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Traffic congestion a monster in our midst

BY KENNETH MAREYA

Urban sprawl and expansion of Harare Metropolitan Province has resulted in an increase in demand for road usage in the city. Traffic jams in the city centre and its feeder roads are now a common feature and have become unmanageable. Have you been to Mbudzi roundabout not only during peak hours of working days but also during weekends? Ask anyone who uses Seke road, Chiremba road, Mutare road, Samora Machel, Kirkman, Harare drive, Bulawayo road, Beatrice, second street extension to mention just a few, these roads have become unbearable especially during peak hours of the day. Most people have resorted to getting in town very early to beat traffic jams. People are spending more than the normal time one should take to travel to and from work.

The problem of congestion is bedevilling quite a number of cities world over, even developed countries such as the US. Some of the most congested cities in Africa include Cape town, Pretoria, Joburg, Cairo, Lagos, Khartoum, Kampala, Lusaka and Nairobi. Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, is the second most congested city in the world. To reduce congestion, Nairobi proposed  car-free Wednesdays and Saturdays in two of the busiest parts of the city. With private cars off the road, the plan is to include more buses, a light railway and a rapid bus transit system. In Rwanda, since 2016, for one day every month Kigali is a car-free zone.

A study by the Department of Business Management at Baisago University, Botswana, ironed out four classes of problems posed by congestion. The nature, extent, and severity of the effects differ from one city to another depending among other things on the city size, road capacity, road layout, spatial distribution of land use, modes of public and private transport systems and travel patterns. Traffic slows down speed which is a visible cost and when people forgo their trips because of fear of congestion, then it becomes a hidden cost of congestion. Commuters who are exposed to air pollution, like those riding in non-air-conditioned vehicles, double their health risk. Aside from stress, they are also exposed to pollutants that can affect the lungs.

The economic impacts are increasing fuel consumption, which leads to higher transportation costs, wastage of working time and delay in service delivery which mainly reduces overall urban productivity. Social impacts include a reduction in quality of life as reflected by a reduction in personal incomes due to increased transportation costs and less productivity, loss of time that could have otherwise been spent on social activities. Drivers who become impatient may be more likely to drive aggressively or dangerously. This contributes to poor health for those affected by the stress and puts other drivers in danger. Road rage also increases the danger posed to pedestrians on the roads, vendors and fellow motorists.

In a spate of words that erupted between police and the city fathers, on Wednesday of last week, Harare City council gave what it called  feedback to stakeholders in response to complaints raised on congestion at Mbudzi roundabout. Posting on its twitter handle Harare City council said, “Council has requested ZRP to remove its roadblock just after Mbudzi Roundabout because it is causing congestion at the busy traffic circle”. ZRP hit back with a press statement dated May 27 arguing that there are a number factors that are causing congestion such as increased traffic, poor road infrastructure, non-functional traffic lights, potholes that have taken too long without being attended, trench repairs that are blocking other lanes, trucks that frequenting CBD in violation of city by-laws. Frankly speaking, none of them is wrong! To an extent our police also act irrationally as they contribute to an increase the level of traffic jams unnecessarily by either closing other lanes or stopping vehicles at points where the roads are narrow, to an extent that the stopped vehicles will be blocking traffic. Conversely, city fathers are sleeping on duty. How much does it cost to repair traffic lights, to fill potholes, to close trenches dug repairing  burst water pipes among other factors.

Despite various joint operations between the council and police to curb illegal pirating, it seems both city fathers and police have conceded  defeat.

I guess it’s unfair to blame police and city fathers for not doing enough to curb jamming. Zinara is unfairly treating road users. Our tollgates are also other points that are frequently characterised with traffic jams. In case someone doesn’t know that the mandate of Zinara is to fix, collect, disburse road user charges and mobilise revenue for roads development and maintenance. It also encompasses the monitoring of such funds that would have been disbursed for road maintenance to road authorities.

Furthermore, Zinara assists road authorities in making annual or multi-year road maintenance rolling plans and approves such plans. The entity also assists the minister in setting maintenance, design, construction and technical standards and to monitor adherence to such standards by road authorities. I always ask myself why Zinara isn’t widening their peri-urban toll gates and increasing the number of lanes or developing an automated system that deducts money automatically from one’s account which is linked to that particular account with vehicle registration number.

The issue of congestion was topical in a recent cabinet meeting and the following resolutions were made, working on the seriously congested Mbudzi Roundabout in Harare South  and the urgent importation of 667 buses to boost the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company fleet, and providing dedicated bus lanes and renovating terminuses. Repairing urgently critical non-functioning traffic lights, improving traffic control at congested junctions, repairing road surfaces at junctions and putting  kerbs to prevent U-turns. Furthermore, there should be joint operations between the police and Municipal Traffic Police at intersections and the municipal cops will also be trained to help in the controlling of traffic.

Though I appreciate the efforts being made by the government and council in decongesting the city, nonetheless, their remedies are short term and lack foresight. Forty-one years after independence, we still depend on the same infrastructure developed by our colonial rulers. How many roads have we widened, dualised or resurfaced? Pause for a moment, ask yourself what will be the situation in our cities 10 years from now? For how long are we going to have police, council officers and airtime vendors manning our roads, intersections in CBD and roundabouts? Its high time authorities seriously put in place long term plans to decongest the city. Why are most if not all public offices located in the CBD? Think of vehicle registration, national registry documents, passports, company registration, you name them. As an economist I suggest decentralisation and improved efficiency of these institutions. Government should also offer tax incentives to firms that develop areas outside Harare such as Ruwa, Mt Hampden, Chitungwiza. Why can’t we construct shopping malls outside the CBD? Think of shopping malls such as High Glen, Westgate, Longcheng being our shopping complexes built by the government in omost locations. A perfect example is the Village in Borrowdale, rarely will someone travel from areas around to do shopping in town. It’s high time to revive industries that are outside the CBD. Government must seriously consider investing in modern rail transport in order to reduce the number of people using private transport.

Economists have suggested the use of the electronic road pricing (ERP) system and countries like Italy (Milan), Singapore and UK have successfully implemented it and it’s working well. Though this must be complemented with good infrastructure.

A holistic approach to solving traffic jams is well overdue. Instead of a piecemeal approach it is now more than urgent for a new approach.

Mareya is an economic analyst. These weekly New Perspectives articles are co-ordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, immediate past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society. — kadenge.zes@gmail.com or mobile +263 772 382 852

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