As per a recent announcement by the Punjab government, Lahore shall soon have another, mega-budgeted, signal-free corridor. Will that help resolve the city’s perennial traffic problems?
Bypass traffic, breeze past congested areas, and avoid the zigzagging motorcyclists from the comfort of your vehicles — alas, this seems too good to be true for Lahoris. The premise of the “signal-free corridor” emerges as some sort of an ingenious solution to traffic woes, pollution, and, perhaps, every other governance challenge. As the election cycle rouses its slumbering machinery, the Punjab government has announced that a brand new signal-free corridor shall be built on the overburdened Maulana Shaukat Ali Road.
The provincial government has approved a project worth Rs 7 billion that will connect the Orange Line Metro Train’s Kharak Stop near Sabzazar to the Metro Bus’s infamous Qainchi Stop along Ferozepur Road.
This 15-kilometre stretch is lined with hotspots of activity: Kareem Block Market, the University of the Punjab, Jinnah Hospital, Faisal Town, Johar Town, Township and some areas of Model Town. Numerous traffic signals make a normal commute on this stretch a 45-minute ordeal even on a Sunday morning.
As per the Lahore Development Authority (LDA)’s proposal, the project will not just benefit the environment but also help reduce encroachments. This almost too rosy a scheme will also reportedly prioritise pedestrian movement, although how a multiple-lane expressway actually does that remains to be seen.
There is no doubt that signal-free corridors are practical and save time. However, there is little scientific evidence from the body of urban transportation planning, design and management that lends credence to their efficacy. The origins of the concept (of signal-free corridor) can be traced back to the expressways of New York in the 1960s, when the controversial city planner, Robert Moses, built city highways, prioritising personal transport over public transport. Though, the social and economic impacts caused by highway segregation caused many cities to abandon his schemes and eventually turn back to modes of public transport.
That’s not all. An empirical study of road accidents along signal-free corridors in Karachi, conducted by professors at the NED University of Engineering and Technology, highlighted some disturbing facts. The study compared incidents and injuries before and after the inauguration of signal-free corridors and found that the total number of incidents had increased by a whopping 113 percent. That is more than twice the number of accidents per day on the same roads previously.
This can be partly explained by their finding that speeding events along signal-free corridors increased by 400 percent. Road crossing and lack of pedestrian facilities along the major areas of activity — for example, hospitals, public buildings and commercial areas — contributed to the increase in accidents.
By its very nature, a signal-free corridor favours car drivers, rickshaws andmotorcyclists, leaving little room for the lesser creatures — namely, the pedestrians and cyclists — to travel freely. Already, the lack of footpaths along the newly constructed roads has been pointed out as a major flaw in the city’s policy for traffic management.
One needn’t go far: a drive along the Jail Road during rush hours near Services Hospital and the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC) will show how traffic on Lahore’s signal-free corridor comes to a screeching halt, pedestrians risk their lives to save a few seconds of their time, and motorcyclists defy all laws and logic, gleefully zigzagging away as bewildered onlookers marvel at the state of deteriorating traffic in the city.
A 2015 study, titled Impacts of Signal Free Corridors on the Incidence of Road Traffic Accidents in Karachi, found that a majority of accidents on signal-free roads affect the pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcycle or pillion riders. Speedy traffic without service lanes, wide U-turn spaces, and off-ramps for accessing public buildings or commercial areas increase the risk to road users. Traffic signals provide breathing time for traffic jams and congestion while also helping maintain a lower speed for vehicles.
By its very nature, a signal-free corridor favours car drivers, rickshaws and motorcyclists, leaving little room for the lesser creatures — namely, the pedestrians and cyclists — to travel freely. Already, the lack of footpaths along the newly constructed roads has been pointed out as a major flaw in the city’s policy for traffic management.
The political economy of cities revolves around vehicular transport, and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is adamant on increasing the number of cars on local roads. The recent reduction in federal excise duty (FED) and additional customs’ duty (ACD), lowest vehicle leasing rates in years, and the Apni Car Scheme to promote vehicle ownership by families of overseas Pakistanis are just a few examples of the consumer-led growth that the government is desperately vying for. Catalysing the economy is one thing, bringing more cars onto roads not meant for that kind of traffic is a sure-shot way to exacerbate an increasing problem for all citizens.
The lack of infrastructure for public transport, inadequate institutional capacity to monitor and manage vehicular transport, and non-availability of data are just some of the factors contributing to poor urban traffic management in Lahore. Not only that, the impacts on public health and environment, the worsening air quality, increasing incidence of smog every year, and the rising temperatures in the city all attest to the fact that a drastic shift in the existing mindset is required to get back on track. As long as transport policies continue to be formulated by the vehicle owning elite, demonisation of public transport projects will be the norm and taxpayers will continue to pay for one signal-free corridor after another.
The writer is a development sector professional with nearly a decade of experience in communications and reporting. He has supported the implementation of The World Bank’s Disaster and Climate Resilience Improvement Project (DCRIP) and ADB’s Flood Emergency Reconstruction and Resilience Project (FERRP) in Pakistan