Saturday, November 5, 2011

Inefficient cities

There are lots of cities in the Third World that I'd call "inefficient cities." It's hard to get anywhere because the transportation infrastructure is so overburdened. This is illustrated by a story I read recently about Kizza Besigye, a political opposition leader in Uganda who was shot in the arm with a rubber bullet and arrested four times, for walking to work in the capital of Kampala. This is not like the stories of crazy suburban high school administrators who threaten to arrest parents for child endangerment for allowing their children to walk to school. This guy's goal was to disrupt the government by walking to work.

One funny aspect of Besigye's story was that when the police arrested him, they gave him a number of choices. One of them was to simply call for his car. Their assumption was that everyone in the Ugandan political elite has not just a car, but a paid chauffeur. Since Besigye didn't challenge that assumption, it was probably accurate.

Clearly, Besigye didn't disrupt the capital by telling his driver to stay home while he walked. That would have actually eased traffic congestion slightly. What disrupted things was that his followers also walked to work, instead of taking buses, cars or motorcycles. Why did this disrupt things? Because Kampala's pedestrian infrastructure sucks.

I haven't been to Kampala, but I've been to other cities in Africa and the Caribbean, and I know that in many of them the sidewalks are narrow or nonexistent. The cities are designed for drivers first, and pedestrians are an afterthought. With proper sidewalks, New York was able to handle crowds of pedestrians during the blackout of 2003. Only the bridge walkways were too narrow for the crowds, so the DOT opened a lane to pedestrians on every bridge. In Kampala, apparently, they can't handle a bunch of people walking to work.

There are similar stories of car traffic, of people trying to get across town in Cairo or Lagos, and giving up because they've been stuck in the same place for hours. These are places that were designed for cars, but where most of the people don't own cars. Still, there are more car owners than the roads were designed for, and the result is gridlock. Los Angeles and Houston have notorious traffic along those lines, but up to now they've been able to build lots and lots of roads to keep cars moving. Kampala and Cairo and Lagos cannot. This is why I call them inefficient cities.

Believe it or not, this still relates to the Tappan Zee Bridge. I'll get to that connection eventually.


jamesinclair said...

"I know that in many of them the sidewalks are narrow or nonexistent. The cities are designed for drivers first, and pedestrians are an afterthought."

Not necessarily. The streets are just incredibly old and there's no money to rebuild them. There are no sidewalks because they were designed for pedestrians and horses. No need to separate the two. Whats the point of a sidewalk when a pedestrian is just as safe walking in the middle?

Problem is, cars were introduced, and walking in the middle is no longer safe because drivers cant resist accelerating.

Cap'n Transit said...

Good point, James, but I'm not talking about the older parts of these cities. Many of these cities have seen explosive growth, and what has been built to accommodate that growth has been just a strip of asphalt, dominated by any car that passes.

Alon said...

My cousin was in Kampala for a few months, and the way he describes the city is different from the way you describe it. What he describes is chaos, as would be expected in a city without car-centric arterials or freeways. The heavier vehicles take the space they want, and pedestrians get the short shrift because they're lighter than cars and if they don't make way they get run over.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for that account, Alon, but I don't see how it's different from what I'm describing.

Alon said...

The thing is that it's very different from cities with a pro-car policy, like Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.