Can traffic jams be banished from Dar? Highly unlikely

Thursday May 12 2022
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Traffic jam from Tabata Matumbi to Buguruni in Dar es Salaam. FILE PHOTO | MCL

By Charles Makakala

A decade or so ago I got a job with a multinational organisation in Tanzania. I had just acquired my second degree, and motivation was sky-high. I had a naïve idea then that if you work hard enough you can change the world.

As a student, I had made my peace with the fact that life sometimes calls you to pull all-nighters, and the sooner you accept that, the lesser you will be distressed when it happens. Therefore, it is not working very late that I mind. It is waking up very early that is the challenge, but with fire in my bones then, I promised myself not to allow my flawed genes to become an excuse for my getting to work late.

Well, fate had other ideas.

On the first day of work, at 6.15am, I was already at the bus stop. In the next one and half hours five buses came and left before I got a chance to squeeze myself into one. Reporting time was 8.30am, and, without magically growing wings then, there was no way I could get to the office before 9.30am.

Along the way, the local MD, a high-flying Chinese professional who had been instrumental in on-boarding me, called to find out if I had changed my mind about joining the company. It was disturbing, but by then I was already resigned to the fact that I could be let go on the very first day. Living in a region of the world where systems do not work tends to exact a heavy price on individuals sometimes.

I survived that day, but I have remained obsessed with the public transport problems in Dar es Salaam ever since. People waking up at 4am and returning from work at 10pm – that’s unconscionable.

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One study showed that people spend two and a half hours more on the road due to traffic jams every day. That is, if a journey from Tegeta to Posta and back should take two hours, it takes four and a half hours. That is the time taken away from people’s work, rest, and social lives. As a result, three out of ten working days are wasted in traffic jams. Thus, businesses make 20 percent less profit annually.

To thrive in such an environment, you need resilience – lots of it. And it’s remarkable how people manage. I guess they have to, otherwise they stand no chance, but the question is – will things change for the better, given time?

Many of us tend to invariably think that the future will always be better – and who can blame us considering the progress that is being made in other fields around the world. But that is a false equivalency. Unfortunately, given the trends, without dramatic rethinking of the government’s approach in Dar, generations will pass without change.

Everything is wrong.

One, we tend to think that if we keep building more roads, the situation will get better. The problem is we are not learning even from our own experience. It is commonly known now that no city can build itself out of traffic jams. In Texas, a 26-lane highway, the widest in the US, was built in 2011, but congestion worsened by up to 55 percent in only three years.

Two, we tend to prioritise prestige projects rather than utilitarian solutions. Buried in the document for the sixth phase of the BRT plan, there is a proposal to connect Kinondoni Hananasif directly with Upanga West through a new bridge, a very sensible solution. But why is it proposed to be last and not first, to give more opportunities for useless solutions?

Three, we tend to delay projects so much that they lose their utility. Twenty years ago when the 140km bus rapid transit (BRT) solution was proposed, it was a visionary solution. But it took ten years for construction to begin and – at the current rate – it might take another ten for it to finish. By then, the city would have become much bigger, and you can end up with a beautiful solution but no relief to congestion.

For a fast growing but poorly planned metropolis, if you don’t execute solutions which are decades ahead of time today, you will never get on top of existing challenges. The good thing is that Dar is not New York, London, or Tokyo – so, as expansive as it is, change is still not prohibitive, but one day it will be.

The solution is in planning the city out of future congestion, rather than waiting for it to occur to solve it. If you don’t discourage people from building further and further away, you will always be building roads to serve them. If you don’t develop clusters of high density, mixed use and mixed income developments, you will always need to develop new transport solutions. If you don’t focus on fewer but efficient rapid mass transport systems, more private cars, daladalas, and bodabodas will get on the road, and hundreds do, every single day.

So, how are you going to get the city out of traffic jams, then?

All things remaining the same, Dar will become a metropolis with 50 million inhabitants this century. The problem is that nothing that is being done today indicates that the government is up to the task. So, the only guarantee we have today is that this is it.

Things will not get better.