The traffic congestion in Harare's city centre has several causes, and no amelioration or even a solution is possible without advancing on several fronts. While some relieving factors do require substantial sums in finance, a great deal can be done with very little money and in some cases none at all.
But before we can debate solutions we need to look at the problems.
The first is to define the city centre, at least in terms of traffic flows. The eastern and western edges are easy to define. Most people would see Enterprise Road South as the eastern edge and Rotten Row as the western edge. The northern "edge" these days tends to be three-fold: Samora Machel Avenue, Herbert Chitepo Avenue and Josiah Tongogara Avenue.
The southern edge is not a road, it is a railway line, and one that has a distinct dog-leg in it. That barrier is one of the most serious problems facing the city.
The next serious problem is the difficulty in getting into or out of the city centre, especially to and from the west. The city council has managed to improve traffic flows and safety within the city centre with a wholesale demarcation of one-way streets. Once in the city centre it is much easier to move around. But the catch is getting into the city centre in the mornings and out in the later afternoon. Few one-way streets reach the eastern, western or northern edge roads, and none penetrate that southern barrier railway.
The only east-west one-way street running right across the city centre is Robert Mugabe Road, taking traffic from west to east which is useful if you enter the city centre in the west and leave from the east, although in the nature of things few are so fortunate. The western-running pairing for Robert Mugabe Road, Robson Manyika Avenue, is a good eastern gateway but suddenly ends half-way across.
The other main east-west pair, Nelson Mandela Avenue and Jason Moyo Avenue, are only one-way in the central blocks and are effectively combined in a single road at the western and eastern ends, causing huge choke points in the mornings and especially in the late afternoons.
Even the very wide Samora Machel Avenue, the first of the northern edge roads, has its usefulness severely limited by the narrower stretch between Park Street and Rotten Row, plus the odd congestion of traffic lights between Second Street and Julius Nyerere Way, plus the peculiar truncation of Second Street as a one-way before it reaches Samora Machel Avenue. The central one-way north-south pair, Angwa Street and Inez Terrace, do not reach Samora Machel Avenue, and the western north-south pair, Leopold Takawira and Chinhoyi Sreets, terminate at that road after it has narrowed, so worsening congestion.
Ameliorations have been on the books for years.
The council has expressed its intention, one day, of buying out the owners of three small cheap buildings at the western end of Nelson Mandela Avenue so that road can extend to Rotten Row, immediately opening the major choke points at the "western gates".
There have always been plans to drive Enterprise Road South under or over the railway line to provide an eastern by-pass for traffic that should not be in the city centre in the first place, and everyone hoped that the complex land and toll deals that would see this extension as part of the new road to the airport would have been implemented by now.
Most people who have come to use and even love the new one-way streets of Leopold Takawira and Chinhoyi Streets would like to see them extended all the way to Josiah Tongogara Avenue, although this would mean the main northern one-way would have to be Harare Street. Wiping out some parking along Samora Machel and linking the two stretches of three-lane traffic in each direction would be another cheap amelioration.
A few cans of paint could visibly ease the congestion at the intersection of Fourth Street and Nelson Mandela Avenue. Having two left-turn lanes into Fourth Street, two straight ahead and just one right turn lane as the one-way goes two-way would reflect present traffic patterns.
At the same time dealing with bad parking on that two-way stretch would at least allow two cars to travel side-by-side in each direction and a bit of tinkering with the corner of the Fourth Street car park would allow the west-bound traffic from Nelson Mandela East to debouch easily into Jason Moyo, opening up the eastern gateway to the city.
These sort of solutions would cost thousands, not millions of dollars.
An imaginative solution is needed for a southern relief road, probably involving land-swaps with the railways followed by shopping and office rights for someone prepared to build a southern by-pass for the city centre. The Newlands by-pass shows what is possible.
A free solution would be to teach motorists a few lessons. Trying to cross busy highways away from traffic lights at rush hours needs to be banned. People should drive around the block. Motorists trying to go from northern to southern suburbs, or western to eastern suburbs, should be routed around the city centre. That extra kilometre will use far less fuel than sitting in a perpetual jam.
Enforcing the day-time lorry ban will cost nothing, and implementing the long-awaited kombi plan should actually generate revenue.
Everyone knows that the council is broke. But it can do a lot for nothing or next to nothing, and can make big changes for very modest sums. The major ring-roads will require a lot more cash, but already there are precedents involving land-swops and airport tolls. More imagination can probably find more such gains. Doing nothing is not the solution, neither is killing the city centre.