December 30, 2012

A Simple Solution to Kabul's Massive Traffic Problem

Working Traffic Light in Karte-Seh, Kabul Afghanistan. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
The thing about complex social systems is that they cannot be controlled.  They may organically self organize or self destruct, but the moment someone attempts to manage the system, everything will freeze up and fail. Traffic is a perfect example.  Admittedly, I've spent far less time on the issue of automobile traffic than most urban planners, but during the last two years that I've daily wrestled with car sickness from the stop-and-go struggle of driving across the city, I've thought a great deal about simple solutions to the Kabul traffic problem.  For those interested, I've also found a great research dissertation on this particular subject.  My analysis and proposal here is far simpler, as I have no fancy data or maps on hand, but lets just say it is based on 2 years of ethnography while living in three different parts of the city.

Kabul, Afghanistan 1960s. Source Unknown.
Kabul then, now, and gridlock
Everyone in Kabul agrees that the traffic problem could have been easily prevented.  In the 1960s and 70s the city didn't have any traffic problems, and in 2001 the city population was at less than half capacity and the city was leveled from decades of war.  Had reconstruction efforts actually began in 2002, the city infrastructure could have been quickly constructed for a population around 9 million people at little cost or inconvenience.  But this did not happen, and so today the city wrestles with around 6 million inhabitants and an infrastructure designed to handle only half of the that.  It is laden with power plays and corruption.  Cheap Chinese imports are jammed into every market and luxury products are more available than ever, although there is not a proportionate distribution of jobs or income to garner wide access to these goods.  

Various USAID and World Bank initiatives have done much in the last couple years to improve the quality of streets by paving dirt roads, repaving much of the downtown, and creating drainage systems. Of course this creates other problems as the construction causes extensive delays and the local population, with limited or nonexistent access to sufficient waste collection, use use the drainage for rubbish and sewage - causing massive backups and new public health risks. 

Small modular T-Walls around Kabul. Source Unknown.
Unlike first world cities, other special variables exist.  The city streets are also dominated by defensive infrastructure in the form of T-Walls, mobile partitians used to fortify security installations.  Major intersections are also blocked by police checkpoints.  Kabul is additionally bisected by a massive mountain, providing only two primary routes to relay traffic around the mountain, and a single-lane road that partially goes over the top.  Lastly the city has one working traffic light (sometimes) which seems to be acknowledged when reinforced by police presence.  

Previous Solutions
I've read several proposed solutions.  Some planners have proposed bans on car imports, the creation of new roads, the repair of street signs, and increased activity by police to enforce traffic codes.   Other solutions involve the development of expensive traffic management systems and facilities.  All of these ideas sound nice, but are more or less quite terrible.  These ideas all cost a lot of money, require a lot of time, will cause more delays, and require a higher level of discipline amont local authorities than available.  I've seen local police enforce traffic violations, and I've also twice witnessed extreme police brutality on citizens who ignored a simple law. We shouldn't really give these guys additional work to do.

So with all these problems, what can be done?


A Systems Approach
My proposal is very simple.  We create an incentive for alternative methods of transit and a disincentive for the current method of transportation.  We also use a very low-tech monitoring system so that police do not require any special training and corruption is offset.  

To succeed we must acknowledge that the chaos of Kabul's traffic is a self organized system determined by many variables.  We cannot control all those variables, nor can we expect that their management would prompt positive outcomes.  We can however provide simple incentives to nudge this system, but these simple incentives can only work if we can manage one or two of the variables that are the most interconnected to all the problems.  To do this, we can start with a trial approach in two particular locations.

First there are really only two ways to bypass the mountain.  One has a police checkpoint nearby, the other has checkpoints on either side.  Everyday between 3 and 6:30 pm, these roads are barely at a crawl, with nauseous drivers and passengers city in a fog of carbon monoxide.  It is not pleasant.


Two major corridors for traffic around the central TV Mountain of Kabul circled in blue. Google Earth 2012.

My 4-Step Solution to Fix Kabul Traffic:

1. Shift the police check points to the center of the corridors connecting the two sides of Kabul.

2. Make each side one-way, so that traffic is circulated around the mountain (though uncertain if this is necessary, needs to be tested).

3. Charge those driving a car 20 Afghani to pass through and provide a simple dated and numbered receipt (like something used at a raffle would may possibly suffice) specific to the car license plate (as we do have those).  Drivers will be charged a maximum of 100 Afghani per day.

4. Those using bicycles will be paid 20 Afghani as they pass through, and will receive up to 100 Afghani per day.

The cost/benefit of 100 Afghani is not excessive, about the cost of 2 USD, but it is significant enough to deter drivers and encourage bicycling.  A variation of this approach was used in Stockholm, wherein the city charged 2 Euro for automobiles to cross bridges into the city.  Notably it created immediate results, and while drivers initially complained, the same population described the project in positive terms after a matter of months.  In this Tedtalk, Jonas Elisson describes the success of this project.

Benefits
My proposal does not require any special funding.   It does not alter the existing infrastructure.  It is environmentally sustainable and can be easily expanded into other major congestion nodes in the city.  Furthermore, the increased use of bicycles over automobiles will increase safety as traffic accidents are the number one cause of accidents in Afghanistan.  It will improve security because car bombs are far more destructive and harder to catch than body-born explosives.  An insurgent on a bicycle will pose far less threat.  Additionally this activity will spur the development of locally produced bicycle manufacturing, sales, and repair - an existing market in Kabul but nowhere near a state of maturity while car sales are otherwise fairly saturated.

Risks
This proposal is not flawless. What is to be done if more people ride bikes than drive cars?  I'm not sure it would ever get to that point, and if it did, would phasing out the program invert the trend?  I cannot know for certain, but one thing is definite - the only way we can succeed is if we try.