As Lahore grows in every direction possible, traffic congestion has become a regular occurrence on most thoroughfares in the metropolis. This has resulted in not only productivity and economic loss for its citizens, but also imposed a social cost in terms of mental stress and lost time.
Given the magnitude of the problem, research based analysis on the subject remains limited. However, a laudable effort has been done by the Punjab Safe City Authority in conjunction with the faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) to ascertain the costs and solutions to traffic congestion in Lahore.
“Traffic congestion in Lahore – Costs and solutions” authored by Syed Muhammad Hasan of LUMS and SSP Akbar Nasir Khan of the PSCA puts the economic cost that Lahore suffers due to congestion at a whopping 100 billion PKR annually! Putting it another way, this amount is equal to the total budget of the Punjab Police for a year.
The study utilised the PSCA traffic count hourly data for the month of April, 2016 to estimate the traffic speed and travel time variation over 24 hours on a section of Mall road, as a sample. It was observed that average speed of vehicles reduces sharply at peak hours in morning and afternoon of a normal working day in the sample area under study.
Congestion causing factors identified by the research include a drastic increase in the number of vehicles on roads along with low road network capacity and poor infrastructure conditions. For example, data from the Punjab Excise and Taxation Department from 2004 to 2013 showed that motorbikes quadrupled from 2 million in 2004 to 8 million in 2013.
In addition, non-availability of reliable travel information, unexpected construction activities, security checks and irregular VIP movements also contribute to traffic congestion while general road discipline is also absent in the general public.
Delving into the specific economic costs associated with congestion, one is the extra time spent on the road by the commuter which has a certain opportunity cost typically measured as a proportion of wage rate. The other cost is of the extra fuel burnt due to the delays in commute.
However apart from this economic cost there is also a social cost incurred by the public as a result of traffic congestion. According to research done on the subject, workers who experience traffic congestion report significantly higher levels of stress than those subject to infrequent congestion. But this is a discussion for another time.
Given these alarming consequences of traffic congestion, the important question is what can policymakers do about the issue? Global practices include introducing pricing and regulatory mechanisms for controlling traffic congestion. The study notes that congestion taxes are used to discourage use of private vehicles during peak hours on selected roads and regions and incentivize use of public transport in several European countries and the United Kingdom. Similar mechanisms are being used in some cities of India and United States. According to findings of a World Bank study, congestion charges would reduce vehicle traffic by 9 to 12 percent and significantly improve environmental quality. However, before imposition of congestion taxes there should be a reliable and efficient public transport system available for commuters. It is also important that this system not confined to major road arteries such as the Metro bus project but also caters to more remote destinations. Another solution mentioned in the study is the regulation of the number of low occupancy and slow-moving vehicles such as rickshaws that cause travel delays on the major arteries of the cities. This can be done by either passing on some part of the congestion cost to individual commuters on major roads in metropolitan centres or enforcing restrictions on inefficient use of vehicles during the peak hours.
Hopefully, this study will be the one of many now that discourse on the topic has started at the government level in tackling traffic congestion.
But more importantly, policymakers should use evidence based analysis to reduce the astronomical costs of congestion being faced in major cities of Pakistan.