Rambassun (Sandeep) Sewpal
Chartered Architect, Principal at Sandeep Sewpal Architect
‘The freeway is jammed and it’s backed up for miles
This car is an oven and baking is wild
Nothing is ever the way it should be
What we deserve we don’t get, you see
A briefcase, a lunch, and a man on the edge
Each step he’s closer to losing his head
Is someone in heaven? Are they looking down?
Nothing is fair, you look around ‘
(Iron Maiden, ‘Man on the edge’)
What is Congestion?
Congestion is defined by the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) as “traffic condition in which vehicles are constantly stopping and starting and in which vehicle concentration is high while flow speeds are low”. Congestion is probably new in Mauritius but it was clearly evident as from the 1850s in Paris, London and New York.
The central market of Paris, Les Halles had to be relocated to Rungis in the 1960s as congestion had worsened in the city as explained in my article, FOOD AND THE CITY: Why should we relocate the belly of Quatre Bornes? published in the forum page of Le Mauricien on the 18th August 2015. In 2003, London introduced the congestion charge which is a fee charged on motor vehicles entering a specific congestion zone with the aim of reducing high traffic and pollution in central London and to raise funds to invest in London’s transport system. Back in the 1930s, American historian and sociologist, Lewis Mumford highly criticised America’s transport networks in their reliance on cars and even suggested solutions to the problem of congestion.
According to Mumford, cars become obstacles for other modes of transportation such as walking; cycling and buses as roads consume too much space and are a danger to people by explaining that, ‘the thousands of maimed and dead each year as a result of automobile accidents are a « ritual sacrifice » the American society makes because of its extreme reliance on highway transport’. In 1957, Mumford suggested that public transportation has to be improved and restored within the city, central and residential neighbourhood to be re-planned for pedestrian movement and restrict motor vehicles, design small electric cars and ban over-sized cars in the city and relocate industries, businesses and administration to city outskirts as solutions to the problem of congestion.
Even though the solutions provided by Mumford do not appear to solve the problem in major cities, it is clear that the problem of congestion is being addressed for more than half a century in the world. The problem of congestion in urban areas of Mauritius has become so great that politicians came to the conclusion that the solution is to provide light rail transit. In 1991, the Urban Land Institute proposed the provisions for light rail transit as one of their solutions to the problem of congestion. But following an assessment for its potential for contributing to future policies that work, some transport experts argue that light rail transit is not successful in reducing congestion in cities. Therefore, why will a government spend so much money on building light rail facilities when there won’t be much impact on congestion?
William Black explains that governments see light rail transit as attractive. In other words, it indicates that the country has entered a higher echelon in modernity with a transport system creating less pollution. But it is undeniable that light rail transit has contributed significantly to reduce traffic congestion in Amsterdam, Berlin and London and it is still viewed as an alternative to cars in these cities.
What are the solutions to the problem of congestion?
According to the research work carried out by the Urban Land Institute, some of the actions to relieve or reduce traffic congestion are as follows, improve traffic signal, expand the road system, provide suburban transit, prompt motor vehicle crash clearance, carpooling and flexible work schedules, high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, provisions for light rail transit, land use strategies, intelligent transport systems, teleworking, congestion pricing and the do-nothing alternative. As the urban morphology of urban areas of Mauritius cannot be compared to that of European cities, will light rail transit be successful in reducing congestion in Quatre Bornes or Port Louis? If not, out of all the solutions proposed by the Urban Land Institute, Mauritius can still consider congestion pricing, high-occupancy-vehicle lanes or bus lanes and the do-nothing alternative.
In fact, reducing the number of lanes along St Jean road in Quatre Bornes to accommodate the track for Metro Express will undoubtedly create more congestion. A ring road running around the periphery of Quatre Bornes linked to its centre is no more feasible because due to urban sprawl the boundaries of the town have merged with other towns making it hard to distinguish its limits or to widen the existing roads. Traffic signal has recently been improved along St Jean road and congestion pricing is not the solution as St Jean road is an arterial road which delivers traffic from collector roads to the motorway. Therefore, what is the solution for St Jean road? Another approach to the problem of congestion is to control vehicle density, but is it possible to achieve? There are over 500,000 vehicles in Mauritius and according to Wilfred Owen; communities believe that there could never be sufficient roads and parking facilities to allow the movement of all people in private cars. But what if there could be measures to prevent the use of private cars? What would these measures be to encourage people to travel by light rail transit or buses? According to transport experts, increasing the price of fuel and setting up congestion charge zones could encourage people to travel by public transport.
Would both the public and private sector still provide car allowance or similar benefit such as duty-free to their employee if travelling by the light rail transit has to be encouraged? Could the travel grant offered by the public and private sector be replaced by a pre-paid electronic card to use on public transport? We do not know yet about the strategies to encourage people to travel by public transport, ‘therefore my advice to drivers stuck in peak-hour traffic is not merely to get politically involved, but also to learn to enjoy congestion. Get a comfortable air-conditioned car with a stereo radio, tape player, a telephone, perhaps a fax machine, and commute with someone who is really attractive’ as Anthony Downs rightly mentioned.