That Kampala City is choking under a horrifying level of congestion, pollution, traffic jams and a public transport crisis is general knowledge. These are issues that have bedeviled cities worldwide for decades.
But what is baffling is how the government and Kampala city authorities have failed to learn from their counterparts in other cities, who through careful research, planning and regulation, have been able to find lasting solutions.
Those who have travelled outside Uganda must have witnessed modern urban transport systems involving a combination of trains (surface and underground), bus lines, bicycle pathways, and pedestrian walkways that are available in big cities worldwide; to provide low-cost transportation, a healthy urban environment and quick mobility for city dwellers. With our clearly desperate city, one would imagine that Uganda fears to to re-invent the wheel yet models are everywhere to learn from.
For instance, in August 2010 after careful planning and research, our regional counterparts Tanzania launched the Dar es Salaam Rapid Transit (DART), a multi-million dollar project funded by the World Bank and African Development Bank, involving the construction of completely new bus ways and service roads, and other infrastructure to relieve congestion in the capital. In addition, the Tanzanian government has put in place robust management structures and regulatory frameworks to ensure that the transport sector functions effectively and efficiently for the benefit of the people and eventually the economy.
Enter Pioneer buses
Unfortunately for Ugandans, it appears the best that the government could think of was introducing Pioneer Easy buses, which as everybody now realizes, appear to be not the solution the business community was longing for but an addition to the existing problem.
Where else do you see a rapid transit system stuck in mile-long traffic jams squeezed between trailers, cars and motorcycles? Does anyone really know that a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system worth its name is supposed to have right-of-way, dedicated lanes or bus-ways completely separated from ordinary traffic to ferry people in and out of the city as quickly as possible?
In other countries, functional BRT systems were designed to serve large masses of people - regardless of income levels - conveniently throughout the day, while maintaining an affordable yet absolutely comfortable riding experience. Because the system is faster and convenient, many people prefer it to their personal cars and it gives give city authorities an opportunity to levy a fee on personal cars that enter the city.
Also, unlike Uganda, many other countries have independent regulatory systems and institutions that control the transport industry. Instead of professional transport bodies, the public transport industry in this country is in the hands of school dropouts and continues to operate in a haphazard manner; to the utter disadvantage of all Ugandans in general and the economy at large. Quite simply, first things are not put first and - and fast enough - in this country. This has to change.
Firstly, with our over 500,000 vehicles and an annual addition of 10,000 vehicles per year - the vast majority of them 14-seater minibuses - Uganda desperately needs professional and independent institutions to regulate the transport sector.
Without a transport master plan, an independent transport authority; or an operational transport policy, the quagmire we are stuck in is rooted in a glaring regulatory vacuum. The entry of new operators into the market is not controlled. The state of our public transport vehicles is pathetic and dangerous. Whether drivers are well-trained and how they conduct themselves as well as the fares passengers are charged are all to -whom -it -may -concern.
How on earth could the government expect to effectively manage the transport industry without a legal framework and the requisite institutions in place?
Personally, I think a professional and independent regulatory body would never have allowed the Pioneer Easy bus contract to operate under the guise of a BRT system because it just doesn't measure up.
In many countries (including developed ones), the rapid transit system is operated under a public private partnership and there are good reasons for it - public transport is an issue of national security. Also, it is the mandate of the regulatory authorities to dictate to the operator the type of buses to be deployed and not vice versa. In the case of Pioneer buses, being forced to stand on a bus for an hour is surely not a good way to motivate motorists to leave their cars at home or for people to abandon 14-seater minibuses.
Secondly, cities worldwide have successfully operationalized modalities for the adoption of other modes of transport such as bicycles - a form of personal transportation that is gaining popularity worldwide thanks to its well-documented health and monetary benefits. What are the authorities doing about that option?
Thirdly, Kampala desperately needs a new urban development strategy to deal with the congestion, jams and massive pollution in the city. There is no running away from the fact that land use has a tremendous influence and does impact greatly on how effective transport systems are planned and managed in large cities.
In Kampala for example, transport infrastructure is gridlocked because of the historical failure or reluctance by the city authorities to adopt and implement an integrated approach to land use and transport planning. It is universally accepted that transport infrastructure planning has to be a product of proper land use and a functional urban planning strategy. For instance, if Kampala's urban planners were really keen on a de-congested city, schools would not have been situated in the city centre with hundreds of students being picked and dropped at peak hours every day.
Against that backdrop, there is an urgent need for an effective regulatory framework and independent institutions to regulate the transport industry.
Otherwise, the hopes of city dwellers to have a modern transportation system in Kampala will only remain a far off dream.