An over-simplistic view of the traffic mess

At a lunch-cum-briefing given by Mr Muhammad Altaf Qamar, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Traffic, Punjab, the DIG outlined the state of traffic, its problems and what measures should be taken to improve the situation. The briefing was attended by senior columnists and editorial writers. In a bid to resolve the growing traffic problems faced by citizens all over the province, Punjab’s Traffic Police has taken an initiative to reorganise the traffic police in five major cities of Punjab, namely Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Multan and Gujranwala.

The traffic problems identified by the DIG were not anything new, but it seems that the traffic police chief has tried to resolve a very complicated traffic problem by the usual prescription of inducting more traffic cops, yet it is debatable whether more recruitment will untangle the traffic conundrum without addressing the root causes, which are still lingering – rather compounding by the day.

The last few years have seen a massive increase in the number of vehicles all over Punjab. Lahore being the largest city in Punjab has been affected the most by this sharp rise in the number of vehicles. According to statistics, in the last five years, the number of registered vehicles in Punjab has increased from 2,793,831 to 4,638,645 – a 66 percent increase – and it is expected that by 2011, the number of vehicles would be 7,700,151. Lahore alone has seen an 87 percent increase in the number of registered vehicles (what to say of the unregistered ones?!) in the last five years. The city’s infrastructure has not changed according to this development, which has led to traffic congestion all over the city.

Defective road engineering has been a major factor in contributing to the already taxing traffic problems. As the DIG Traffic himself explained, the underpasses on the Canal Road are on a zigzag pattern, which leads to utter confusion for the drivers. As most of the drivers are not sure of whether the next underpass would be on the right or the left, they usually end up changing lanes at the last minute, which obviously endangers the traffic. The DIG also identified the intersections that required geometric improvement, but since these problems do not come under the traffic police’s domain, he could not provide any timetable for when these issues would be addressed.

Another problem that adds to the traffic woes is the poor road infrastructure. One only has to travel to Gulberg – once considered to be Lahore’s most posh area – to see the appalling condition of the roads. If a metropolitan posh area is in such dreadful condition, one can well imagine in what dismal state the roads of other areas are. The situation is no different in other major cities of Punjab. The roads of Madina Town, an elite residential area in Faisalabad, are as bad as Gulberg. Rawalpindi’s Satellite Town faces the same crisis. Adding to the poor condition of roads is the non-availability of parking places. When the vehicles are increasing on such a massive scale, it is inevitable that roads that were meant to accommodate much less traffic would not be able to provide sufficient parking space for the new vehicles. As a result, there are encroachments all over the city.

Insufficient and poor urban transport is a major factor leading to a sharp increase in the number of vehicles. The banks have cashed in on this problem by leasing out motorcycles, cars, etc., on easy terms. In a country where the inflation rate keeps increasing with every passing year, the masses are finding it hard to make ends meet. The additional cost of owning vehicles adds more to their economic woes, but it is something that cannot be avoided in today’s fast-paced world where transport has become a necessity. According to statistics, the fleet of public transport in Lahore can only cater for a maximum of 0.8 million people out of approximately four million working population. This shortage has resulted in an unhealthy competition amongst the transporters: over-loading, over-speeding, rash driving, overcharging of fares and various other problems. If our urban transport was more reliable, people would have a realistic alternative to using privately owned vehicles.

According to the traffic police, the existing traffic laws do not cover 70 percent of the road users, which includes cyclists, animal-drawn carts, hand-pushed carts and pedestrians. Data collected in 2001 shows that there were a total of 5,839,803 non-motorised vehicles (bicycles, tongas, animal-drawn carts, hand-pushed carts) in Punjab. These vehicles are slow in speed, thereby slowing other traffic. Since there are no laws against these road users, their violations cannot be penalised. The traffic police chief was not satisfied with the fines on traffic violations and considered them very low in comparison to the fines on the Motorway.

The issue of the burgeoning traffic mess can be resolved by efficient urban transport; uninterrupted flow of traffic/minimisation of traffic signals; effective traffic laws; establishment of driving schools in the government sector; encroachment-free roads; establishment of automated traffic management system and effective traffic police.

The Punjab government has announced some projects to address these issues, which include the building of the Ring Road, a mass transit rail system, integrated traffic management system for the five major cities, enhancement of fines on traffic violations and the reorganisation of traffic police. Most of these projects, such as the Ring Road, mass transit rail system and integrated traffic management system, would take many years to complete.

For the time being, the government has launched a new force in the traffic police called Traffic Wardens (TWs). Their minimum qualification is graduation. In comparison to the 5,000 traffic police officers for 35 districts of Punjab, there will be 8,445 TWs for the five major cities. They would have specialised equipment such as speed-checking devices, accident vehicle cutters, digital cameras, movie cameras, multi-media, computers, first-aid boxes, electric rods, traffic cones, reflecting jackets and blinkers. Communication equipment for this new force includes 25 base sets, 3,075 mobile wireless sets and 5,350 walkie-talkie sets. They would be provided with more efficient transport such as cars (1,000 cc), jeeps, fork lifters, mobile canteens, motorcycles and other types of vehicles. This would increase the traffic police’s efficiency. The TWs would fine traffic violators at a much higher rate, which would make commuters think twice before violating any traffic rules.

The TWs would extend unqualified courtesy, unasked assistance, guidance where asked for or required, efficiency of the highest order, unprecedented performance and integrity beyond doubt. The DIG assured that the TWs would not compromise on three things: courtesy, integrity and efficiency. He guaranteed that even if the son of Punjab’s Chief Minister violates any traffic law, he would be penalised.

These days the TWs are out on the roads as observers. This is so that they can get the feel of the traffic and get over their road-shyness. They will officially be launched in the first week of May. Mr Altaf Qamar asked the citizens to lend their full support to this new team of traffic police and forgive them for small mistakes.

The plan to launch the TWs does sound good, but only momentarily. One does not understand the need for this additional force when the root causes of the traffic problems are not addressed. Also, if the old traffic police was provided with such specialised training and equipment as the TWs, their efficiency would have increased as well. The reason that most of them are not graduates is not reason enough. The TWs’ rank is equivalent to a Sub-Inspector (SI). Due to their induction, a large chunk of the 179 Additional Sub-Inspectors (ASIs), 190 Head Constables and 1,230 Constables had to be adjusted in other departments of the traffic police. These are the people who have practical knowledge of managing traffic on the roads, who have given their entire lives in serving the traffic police and in the process acquired various illnesses due to the high level of pollution in the cities. Yet these are the people who are now aggrieved at being set aside, while new people are being recruited and given better pay packages, duty hours and other perks as compared to the previous policemen.

Without taking care of the root causes of the traffic mess, the government seems to be relying on superficial measures. It is strongly recommended that the government should first improve the infrastructure, and then address other traffic-related issues before inducting new officers, who would only be a burden on the exchequer.


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