24 February 2013

Ethiopia: Roads Host Inequality


The total area of pavements in this vibrant and rapidly expanding capital of ours is a little over 660sqkm. This is despite asphalted roads covering a total of 5,000sqkm, according to the Addis Abeba City Roads Authority (AACRA).

For an estimated population of around 4.8 million urbanites, who are without access to their own private vehicles, the amount of pavements is not only inadequate for the walking population, but also unevenly distributed. The construction of roads in the metropolis, over the past 12 years, is without doubt the most significant growth undertaking the capital has witnessed throughout its 125 years.

Seen in the context of a country where 83pc of the population live in rural areas, with little or no access to roads, the distribution of pavements may be considered an unfair and extravagant outlay of resources, in favour of the urban population. Using the same analogy, one could argue that the total area of constructed pavements is negligible, in comparison to the total area of the city, built almost 13 decades ago.

Improper outlays are only the tip of the iceberg, as far as problems with pavement inadequacy are concerned. The crucial issue is the vulnerability of these pavements to a dozen other uses, even to the extent of sidelining the pedestrians for whom these pavements were designed to serve in the first place.

The word pedestrian, by the way, is used to describe players who lack pace, in the football parlance. It may not be fair to use it for pedestrians who forego their right of way on the pavements. But it is sadly true.

Take the case of the many roads without pavements and those with only narrow offerings, in many parts of the city. The pavement that runs alongside the Belay Zeleke Road, for instance, is multifunctional. It serves as a showroom for second hand furniture, such as one or two complete sofa sets, tables and a chest of drawers. In this case, pedestrians have no alternative but to walk on the main road, risking their lives within the growing wave of oncoming traffic.

Residents, living alongside asphalt roads, also tie ropes and strings on which to hang their freshly laundered clothes, again forcing pedestrians to forfeit their rights to the pavement. In some cases, residents also pile up their wood, twigs and eucalyptus dry leaves.

But, the most regular users of the pavements are the shoe-shine boys and vendors who spread out their wares for sale on large plastic tarps. Pack animals laden with quintals of grain, teff or wood also dominate these narrow pathways.

Utility organisations, such as; ethio-telecom, the Addis Abeba Water & Sewerage Authority (AAWSA), the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCO) and the Ethiopian Road Authority (ERA) have different purposes to serve. But, they all have one thing in common. They dig into the very same pavements, causing disruption, even though their end objective may well be to serve the people.

The problem, in many instances, is leaving the job half finished. Manholes and rigged ditches are left half open or improperly refilled. In such cases, elderly and disabled pedestrians are left to suffer the most.

The issue can also be looked at from the vantage point of ethics and the equitable allocation of resources. Billions of Birr are spent on the construction of new roads. This fund comes from the national coffers, or the respective treasury, where every taxpayer has a say.

If democracy is also about numbers, then the 300,000 plus car owners in the country are certainly a minority when compared to the total number of people who do not possess a vehicle. It is elementary arithmetic to divide the total area of roads by the number of users, and observe the imbalanced ratio.

In principle, roads are structures used by both motorists and pedestrians to move from one point to another. In the case of Addis Abeba, however, roads, and pavements in particular, are more than that. It is where old codgers spend much of their time, loitering around or sitting under the shade of bus stop awnings, in lieu of benches to take rest. Shoe-shine boys and vendors earn their daily bread working on the pavements, whilst sheep and poultry are sold to passersby.

Children use them as playgrounds and delinquents make their beds there for the night. These days, some vendors drive wheel garcons and ball baring rollers mounted on wooden frames to transport jerry cans filled with water.

What is life without water? Roads help to nurture life.

As vibrant as Africa's capital may be, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to building new pavements and repairing old ones. In fact, in light of the country's aspirations to engage itself in the development of a green economy, what the future holds for pedestrians may lie within the cycling mode of transport, above all others.

Of all the cities I have seen and visited, Ethiopia's capital is the one most highly populated by pedestrians and vendors. It has therefore become imperative to serve those who need pavements the most.

It has to be noted that the newly built wide roads are annexed by beautiful pavements. But, unfortunately, these beautiful brick laid pavements, which are used by wealthy joggers on the weekends, are not located on the main roads where they are needed most.

Finally, it must also be mentioned that zebra crossings, meant for pedestrians, ought to be respected by motorists. There should also be more pedestrian bridges on the ring roads to guarantee the safety of those wishing to cross to the other side.

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