The Dawn: Oct 16, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Modern Lahore: cross road and get killed

Mushtaq Soofi 

Seeing the official mania to build wider and wider roads, one feels compelled to say cities don’t need highways. But Lahore does if we go by what is constantly planned and re-planned by the officialdom in the name of city’s infrastructure, especially the roads. The question is that isn’t Lahore a city? If it is (as it has been for thousands of years) it must be the strangest of cities. There are bigger cities than Lahore in the world but it’s perhaps the only one, its planners believe, that needs highways and signal-free roads to facilitate and manage the mass movement of the people. The method adopted to keep the city on the move makes the roads to encroach on greenbelts and leafy open spaces where insects find niches, birds nestle and the less privileged singed by burning sun in the summer take shelter in an effort to cool their heels. As the planners are widening roads at a neck-breaking pace, the old landscape of the city is fast disappearing into thin air which made it what it traditionally has been -- the city of gardens. Now you see monstrosities of concrete where once gardens emitted fragrance and lifeless stretches of asphalt where the wind used to whistle through the leafy branches carrying the bird-songs.

Destruction of whatever is left of nature in the form of greenbelts and patches in the city is proudly touted as development. Who benefits from such a development? Affluent middle and upper class motorists! The rich of the city want wider roads to enjoy the thrill of speed with their high acceleration vehicles on the pretext of saving travel time. So the planners ever ready to serve the lords of the city have come-up with the idea of signal-free roads.

Now what signal-free roads mean? In simple words it means dangerously fast-speed vehicular traffic in the thickly-populated urban centre resulting in an increased number of accidents with more fatalities. It seems our traffic engineers have given up the responsibility of controlling over speeding and erratic driving which is a common practice on our roads. They have forgotten that traffic signals provide us with a tried and tested method of controlling madness on the roads. Drivers coming on to smaller roads tend to be impatient and nasty after having a free run of the signal-free roads the size of highways.

What about the pedestrians? Where are they supposed to walk, especially when it comes to the hugely widened roads which have no sidewalks and crossings? As the roads widen new footpaths never see the light of day and old ones are swept under. It seems, our rookie planners believe, walking is forbidden for humans as if it’s vestige of animal kingdom they have been part of. Everybody is supposed to drive a vehicle in a country where almost 40 per cent of population is forced to live below the poverty line. As to the pedestrians who cannot cross the roads because there are no marked crossings, the planners have a ready-made answer: we have erected overhead bridges, haven’t we? The fact is that overhead bridges are far and few. One has to walk quite a distance to reach them. Secondly, they are almost 18 feet high. Elderly men, women and children cannot muster enough strength to climb such a height. So they try to cross the road risking life and limb. In their attempt to cross the road they look like besieged animals, desperate and disoriented finding no way to run away to safety. No motorist stops as there is no concept of pedestrians’ rights. The situation becomes even more dangerous if some motorist taking pity on poor pedestrian stops because there is a strong likelihood that some other vehicle coming from the other lane would crush him/her under its wheels. So please don’t stop. Let waiting be the destiny of those who have to wait for ‘Godot’ on our road to development.

The myth of development is as hollow as the pompous claim that wide and signal-free roads ease traffic congestion. This model has failed in Gulf States and elsewhere to address the public transport problem. Lahore is a good case to study. Widened roads attract more and more of private vehicles. Traffic goes haywire on any of Lahore’s signal-free roads with four to six lanes the moment there is some small hurdle or a minor accident. Another reason for such an unmanageable mess is that monkeys in the driving seats are averse to following any traffic rules and thus can go berserk on the slightest pretext. They in fact have no training to abide by the rules. It’s no secret how driving licences are issued. Ordinary mortal in Lahore, for that matter anywhere in Punjab, can get his or her licence by bribing the minions without undergoing any test. A powerful or a rich individual manages to have his licence home delivered. Driving licence obtained by drivers, poor and rich, is not a driving licence. It’s virtually a licence to kill and get killed on the roads built with incredibly huge sum of money extracted from the common man who cannot cross them.

It’s hard to dissuade panjandrums of our system from fabricating what they think is modern, the sign of progress. But we at least can warn them. Do build infrastructure the ever expanding population of the city needs, but if you forget the man who is supposedly going to benefit from it, the whole thing will be a dead weight. Construct roads but if you fail to educate and train the user, they will prove little more than a grey mine-field. Erect the overhead bridges but if you fail to provide enough calories to the one who has to take 30 steps upwards to reach the other side of the road, they will be nothing more than a hollow laugh of steel and concrete. —

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