26 February 2013

Uganda: Traffic Jams - Uganda's New Health, Economic, Environmental Disaster

IT is a status statement and a key success benchmark after years of toil, but drawing envy and covets in varying proportions for many a Ugandan.

Yet, while owning a car enhances life style, mobility and timely arrival to preferred destinations; 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 off 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, owing to relative peace, macro-economic stability and economic prosperity resulting in wealth accumulation for individuals.

This has economically empowered Ugandans into owning vehicles and unlawfully erecting buildings, justifying the jam problem. However, in discussing the menace, no single item 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 increase in vehicle population, among others, have connived to mock and 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 to-date, UBOS statistics show.

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 currently 33 million Ugandans and a road network totaling 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 our roads," notes works state minister, Eng. John Byabagambi.

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

More jams, lost revenues

The absence of a well-managed and efficient public transport system, since the collapse of the state-run Uganda Transport Company (UTC) buses in the late 1980s, left citizens under the mercy of the exploitative and overtly incompetent Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers' Association (UTODA) and boda bodas (hire motor cycles)

In fact, it is largely the pain and agony of a failed public transport service, mainly offered by 14-seater UTODA-owned 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 vehicle has resulted in an increase in pollution, traffic jams/ congestion and a reduction in the quality of life for urban dwellers," it says, adding that motorbikes are hazardous and add to the traffic congestion, air pollution and disorganization in urban centers.

The jams also account for 30% of productive time lost daily, a situation worsened by over 10, 000 boda bodas, a popular alternative Kampalans use to fend-off jams in the city center.

In Uganda, over 70% of vehicles driven on the country's roads are used, second-hand or reconditioned.

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

"A second-hand car's combustion efficiency is not as good as the 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.

As well, when second-hand cars are no longer motorable, their frames end up being bought as scrap, 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 Aryamanya.

Alongside burning tyres on roads and release of burnt oil by vehicles is not only hazardous to human health, but also roads as they shorten their lifespan, a complaint raised by the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA).

KCCA address jam menace

To address the traffic jam problem in Kampala, 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.

Armed with 100 buses cheaply ferrying passengers in and out of the city at rates of sh500-sh800, Pioneer Easy Bus (PEB) has played a significant role in reducing city jam, though this is debatable.

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 government current 2011/12 FY.

KCCA has a grand plan requiring sh200b annually for a 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 to 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 worthy of talking about."

This will also involve relegating boda bodas and Kamunyes to Kampala's Central Business District's (CBD) periphery and levying a heavy fee on private car users to force them into joining the public transport system,

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

"Our roads with less than three lanes shouldn't accommodate street parking. Our transport experts must also be employed and allowed to plan for a better Kampala."

Conclusively, the reduction of traffic jam will be a gradual, not an overnight process that will require strict implementation of available laws and cooperation from Kampalans. Until then, only the worse beckons.

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