Optimising our land resources – Coping with the traffic problem

What will happen if the vehicle population growth rate (+4.5% in 2015) were to keep outstripping
the natural population growth rate (+0.1% in 2015), as it is the case at present? A structural problem is embedding itself into the system, getting worse by the day.

Despite the rapid expansion of concrete cement during past decades, Mauritius retains a lot of its pristine natural beauty as an island. More of our fertile land is still threatened by cement. We need to strike a pleasant balance between the two. If we don’t, there is an attendant risk that we might have to live with artificial beauty like certain other places such as Dubai and Singapore to compensate for the displacement of land by all manner of constructions.

It is usually difficult to at once employ our land resources for economic development and to retain enough of the land in its pure natural state for other uses such as for pure aesthetics or in pursuit of a food sufficiency programme. While it is common in several countries for natural vegetation to be made to give way to constructions, rarely would one come across cases where nature is made to claim back its own from the previous advance of concrete and tarmacs.

Unwanted metal boxes parked bumper-to-bumper

Places like Port Louis have become over-concentrated, especially during the day, with traffic and pollution. Street hawkers operating in the centre of the City take up for their trade even part of its pavements meant for pedestrians. If you go to Ebène Cybercity during working hours, your sight will be offended by the numerous uncouthly parked cars along the roadsides, for want of a decent parking. The car which many saw not many years back as a sign of social ascension and a prestige possession, looks over there like so many pieces of unwanted metal boxes parked bumper-to-bumper in whatever empty space was available.

As it is the case in other towns and cities, the response to this situation has been to deploy available empty lands as rough-and-ready parking lots. This conversion of previously unoccupied lands brings rents to the owners. Others have constructed specifically dedicated new buildings in which to park vehicles. Ebène Cybercity is contemplating setting up additional exclusively-park buildings to remove the horror that randomly parked vehicles currently constitute in this environment.

Faced with this situation, municipalities and similar authorities give building permits on condition sufficient parking space is provided for by each developer. Thus space that would have served as office or production space becomes a parking lot. Many would consider this kind of policy approach as a means of warding off the problem of insufficient availability of parking space now and in the future. In reality, it carries important economic costs.

The prevailing traffic situation reflects the higher mobility of people and goods across the country over time. The economy has expanded over the years and, with it, the movement of people and goods. This has been accommodated for by developing more and wider roads in almost all parts of the country. We have, for an island with a land area of 2044 square kilometres, 2,066 kilometres of roads, half of which are main two-way connecting roads, a third secondary roads, 4% motorways and roughly 20% are other roads.

Roads not only occupy natural land almost irreversibly; they connect remote places and thus favour greater social and economic exchange and mobility. They are useful, to a point.

In 1970, the total number of vehicles on the roads in Mauritius numbered 25,389; in the space of four decades to June 2013, this figure had climbed up to 443,495, then to 465,052 by December 2014, only to increase further to 486,426 by December 2015. Data show that while 4,921 vehicles were put off the roads in 2015, 26,013 additional vehicles were introduced, of which 16,308 were new and 9,041were second-hand. Nearly half the existing vehicle population of Mauritius is made up of cars and double cabs; about 40% are motor cycles (almost double the 21% of 1970) while 11% are buses, trucks and lorries.

Cars, that is personal passenger vehicles, are the dominant means of transport on our roads. Add to this motor cycles as an additional means of passenger transport. The current situation shows that personal transport is a key factor justifying the use of ever increasing amounts of land dedicated for roads, new road construction and for widening them up. It is the personal transport sector therefore that has been least efficiently managed by means of a convenient mass public transport system. Left to itself and the recurring traffic congestion problem, there is a chance that, unless something is done to stop this trend, more of our precious land may end up being claimed by additional roads. Contemplated construction of additional flyovers is a symptom of a traffic problem that has been worsening by the day.

Rationalisation of our transport system

Rationalisation of our transport system is rapidly becoming an imperative if we want to preserve our lands for alternative agricultural and ecological purposes. If we don’t do this, the country will someday lose its pristine appeal and make us a run-of-the-mill tourist destination. Besides, the quality of life would irretrievably decline for our own population unless we arrest the trend to an ever-increasing vehicle population from year to year.

We have to ask the question: left to itself, what will happen if the vehicle population growth rate (+4.5% in 2015) were to keep outstripping the natural population growth rate (+0.1% in 2015), as it is the case at present? A structural problem is embedding itself into the system, getting worse by the day.

The imbalance will be reflected in ever higher oil import bills and the associated pollution; road accidents (+7.9% in 2015) will multiply and not many decision-makers will have the courage to revert land already supplied to roads to its original agricultural/ecological vocation. This is how the world’s biggest cities have become prone to severe road congestion and an almost permanent haze of pollution hanging over them. No amount of additional land dedicated to roads has fended off the problem. Quite the opposite.

Sometimes, politicians have to swallow their pride and reverse wrong decisions endorsed if only to cope with the issue before it is too late. Mauritius not only needs a re-thought mass transport system. It needs to collect much more fines and penalties for abusive use of roads and road infrastructures to make an alternative efficient and decent public transport system user-friendly and convenient for the public at large.

The question is: will politicians/policy-makers increase taxes on existing parking lots, perhaps tenfold to begin with and much higher later on, to deter use of private transport which has gone on adding to existing traffic congestion? Will they take steps to eliminate a large number of parking lots to revert the lands to their natural uses?

Will they interdict/fine heavily anyone taking liberty to park their vehicles, during the day and, sometimes, the whole of the night, on roadsides, especially on dual carriage main roads, thereby increasing tensions among drivers unable to overtake the parked vehicles in the face of oncoming traffic from the opposite direction, adding to the resulting bad driving culture? That should make buyers think twice before purchasing the second or nth vehicle for the family.

It’s a bold decision to take but it makes sense. The time has come to charge heavily when some people persistently “privatise” (by parking) a public good (the public roads) to the inconvenience of everybody else. By the same token, a culture of respect for the law will kick in among the abusers. Driving might once again become a pleasure.

If so, there’s not only a lot of money to make for the public purse; at the end of the day, an easier and more rational flow of passenger traffic should emerge. The vehicle population will be kept under check. In the process, land that would have otherwise gone for providing parking for vehicles and for newer road construction will hopefully be put to a more useful purpose. We need now to target a balance in this regard before the scales are tilted irretrievably backward.

* Published in print edition on 29 April 2016

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