2 September 2012

Uganda: Traffic Jam - the New Health and Economic Disaster


Owning a car is a status statement and a key success benchmark after years of toil. It draws envy and admirations in varying proportions for many Ugandans.

While owning a car enhances life style and mobility, it is also a death trap through accidents, accounting for loss of over 3, 000 lives in Uganda annually, Police statistics show.

Enter traffic jams, and you have a serious health, economic and environmental problem- Kampala City's new nemesis, compounded by nightmarish noise of deafening hoots from crammed motorists.

"At peak hours, motorists drive at 4km/hr in Kampala," says Merion Tibabiganya, a public transport consultant.

"This means that if you are walking, you will be faster than someone travelling in a car. We need to find a solution to the jam problem urgently."

Why the jams?

Kampala is chocking on traffic jams, a product of her own economic prosperity over the years due to relative peace and macro-economic stability, resulting in wealth accumulation for individuals. This has economically empowered Ugandans to own vehicles.

Because of the increased wealth, many have also illegally erected buildings on road reserves, making the roads smaller and intensifying the traffic jam.

But in discussing the menace, no single element can be blamed in isolation.

A combination of broken and narrow roads, floods, high population growth rate, poor physical planning, resulting in construction of unplanned structures and the increase in vehicle population, have connived to render Kampala, one of Africa's model cities in the 1960s, a shadow of its former self.

Post-independence Uganda has witnessed express economic growth averaging 6% annually.

However, for a city planned for 500,000 people in 1903, Kampala chokes on over two million people during the day and one million at night, UBOS data shows.

When Uganda gained independence in 1962, she boasted a population of six million inhabitants, with 5,000 vehicles plying her 400km road network.

Fast-forward 2012, and there are 33 million Ugandans and a road network totalling 82,500km.

However, with this hasty growth, has come increase in vehicle population, now estimated at over one million, half of which ply city roads daily, according to government statistics.

"The growth in vehicle population is not adequately matched by improvement and maintenance works on the roads," notes works state minister Eng. John Byabagambi.

"We need to invest in roads maintenance to keep the existing road network in good condition."

More jams, lost revenues

The absence of a well-managed and efficient public transport system, since the collapse of the state-run Uganda Transport Bus Company in the late 1980s, left citizens at the mercy the Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers' Association (UTODA) and boda bodas.

In fact, it is largely the pain and agony of a failed public transport service, mainly offered by 14-seater mini-buses, that many Ugandans invest in personal cars, resulting in traffic jams that cost the economy a whooping sh500m daily in burnt fuel, according to the state of environment report for Uganda, 2008, conducted by NEMA, the national environment watchdog.

"The increase in motor vehicles has resulted in an increase in pollution, traffic jams, congestion and a reduction in the quality of life for urban dwellers," it says.

NEMA adds that motorbikes are hazardous and add to the traffic congestion, air pollution and disorganisation in urban centres.

The jams also account for 30% of productive time lost daily, a situation worsened by over 10,000 boda bodas, a popular alternative urban dwellers use to dodge jams in the city centre.

Over 70% of vehicles driven on the country's roads are second-hand or reconditioned.

Former NEMA executive director Dr. Aryamanya Mugisha notes that second-hand cars pose grave, health and environmental challenges.

"A second-hand car's combustion efficiency is not as good as that of a new car," he says.

"It lasts a shorter time, consumes more fuel, its engine is not efficient and emits more carbon monoxide into the atmosphere than a new one."

Burning fossil fuels like oil and petrol from vehicles emit carbon dioxide, a main greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming.

These greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide and methane, trap the sunlight and cause temperatures in the atmosphere to rise, bringing about changes in weather patterns.

When second-hand cars are no longer motorable, their frames end up being bought as scrap, a booming business in Uganda, but their plastic components pollute the environment as they are littered and not recycled.

"Vehicle fuel has a sulphur gas component which causes respiratory diseases, of which cancer is one of them," says Mugisha.

Release of burnt oil by vehicles is not only hazardous to human health, but also roads as it shortens their lifespan, a complaint raised by the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA).

KCCA to address jam menace

To address the traffic jam problem in the city, Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) cancelled its decades-old long contract with UTODA and is phasing out 14-seater commuter taxis in preference for vehicles with bigger capacity to decongest the city.

KCCA is also razing poorly planned structures, ensuring that only buildings within its approved plans stand in the city.

But with most city roads outliving their usefulness, KCCA finds itself constrained financially, getting only sh42b of its sh1trillion budget submitted to the Government this finical year.

KCCA has a grand plan requiring sh200b annually for the total overhaul of city roads to decongest traffic and restore an effective public transport system comprising buses and passenger train, says Peter Kaujju, the KCCA head of corporate affairs.

"We (KCCA) are trying everything possible to ensure we have a city that has a good road network, drainage system and is well lit," he says.

"We want to have a city worth talking about."

This will also involve relegating boda bodas and commuter taxis to the periphery of Kampala Central Business District and levying a heavy fee on private car users to force them into the public transport system.

"We need (public) service vehicles with capacities to carry 80 or more passengers and an urban railway system like the previous Kayoola," says Tibabiganya.

"Our roads, with less than three lanes, should not accommodate street parking. Transport experts must also be employed and allowed to plan for a better Kampala."

The reduction of traffic jam in the city will be a gradual process that will require strict implementation of laws and cooperation from the public. Until then, only the worst beckons.

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