World Traffic Jam

VIEWED FROM outer space, the traffic in Edinburgh and Glasgow doesn’t look particularly bad. In 2002, the European Space Agency launched a new satellite – Envisat – to monitor air pollution levels across the planet. Envisat sees the spectral traces of man-made gases, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), as they rise in vertical tropospheric columns from power plants, shipping lanes, centres of heavy industry and major urban road networks. Compared to places such as northeast China in those terms, Scottish cities form an almost negligible part of a global picture.

But motorists cannot be expected to get things in such perspective while sitting at the end of a Princes Street tailback, or trapped in theone-way system on the wrong side of George Square. Arguments for and against proposed parking charges in Glasgow and the long-debated Edinburgh tram service – the construction of which began last week – have been dictated by specific and local concerns. Glasgow Chamber Of Commerce worries that businesses elsewhere will have an unfair competitive advantage if the city’s workers are forced to pay for parking outside their own offices, and shoppers are effectively taxed to stop at out-of-town centres, such as Braehead.

The new SNP Executive concedes failure in its opposition to the Edinburgh tram (by 81 votes to 47), but warns that this administration will not provide any additional funds if the project goes overbudget before the scheduled completion date of 2011. Both cities, meanwhile, have so far rejected the sort of congestion charges that have alienated motorists in London. Those charges though, have also reduced the volume of traffic in target zones by up to 25%. Similar measures, in place from Singapore to the compact historical centre of Durham – which has seen a 90% drop in traffic since a £2 fee was introduced four years ago – indicate that this may be the only effective way of reducing the private vehicle use by which automobiles have overrun the Earth.

There are other, bigger, poorer cities, however, where thoughts of carbon emissions remain an abstraction or a luxury. In places like these, the traffic jams are now so long, coiled, complex and mysterious, they must look, from space, like a whole other lifeform.


The “developed” world is referred to as such – in the past tense – because its societies are as built-up, wealthy and populous as they are likely to get, at least until the next great historical upheaval. The future is being decided elsewhere, in those megacities still forming around the Pacific Rim, the Equator and the tropics, where the balance of the Earth has only just shifted so that more than half of its people are now urbanised, and where the universal total of slum-dwellers recently passed one billion. Some 60 million new residents are added to these cities every year, and by 2030, the majority of the world’s population is expected to be living and dying in crowded places. Lagos, the biggest city in Africa, is growing faster than any other metropolis of the past or present. It cannot be called “developing” because there is absolutely no plan for that growth. It’s not officially a city, either, but a by-product of the 1970s oil boom that has taken on
a life of its own across the islands and lagoons of the Nigerian coastline, with no administration to take control or responsibility (Lagos State is divided among 20 separate local government authorities). Lagos is the shape of things to come, and it has no shape at all. The traffic is an ongoing demonstration. Freeways built by German contractors Julius Berger have been over-utilised far beyond capacity by old and disrepaired vehicles bought cheaply from Europe and Asia. Potholes and breakdowns induce almost constant paralysis on these roads, compounded by refuse build-ups that spill over to occupy entire lanes, drainage so poor that monsoon rains cause floods to pour through car windows and engines. New transport initiatives, such as a recent attempt to enforce compulsory annual vehicle inspections, create new opportunities for bribery and extortion among police and bureaucrats. Smaller local streets are equally congested with people and automobiles, often creating two kinds of jam at once. It is sometimes suggested that major population centres are less remarkable for their deficiencies than for the fact that they function at all, and the attitude of Lagosians was generalised by the late local hero Fela Kuti’s radio-friendly political pop song Suffering And Smiling. Also, while Lagos remains the only global megacity with no metro system (a French contract to install one fell through), its taxi drivers perform miracles of a sort in manoeuvring their okadas (passenger motorbikes), and moules (battle-scarred transit buses)through the smallest available spaces at maximum speed.

Whatever ingenuity they possess, however, is offset by the frequency of robberies and fatalities within this bare-bones public transport network, as well as the class and gender grudges they hold and act out against comparatively wealthy private car – owners, and female drivers in particular. The journalist Ike Oguine recently described Lagos traffic as a badge for Nigeria’s problems, which are also Africa’s, which in turn must belong to humanity in general.

“At the root of the current savagery on the roads,” wrote Oguine, “is the general belief that life is a pitiless race in which you trample or are trampled We remain stuck in self-inflicted traffic jams while the 21st century gathers pace all around us.”


Each year, more than one million people are killed in traffic accidents around the world. Statistically, up to 15% of those victims must be Catholic, and therefore fall within the planet-wide jurisdiction of the Vatican. This may explain why new guidelines for pastoral care of the roads were recently issued from the office of Cardinal Renato Martino.Its 36 pages contain 10 new commandments. These include: “The road shall be a means of communication between people, and not of mortal harm.” And: “Cars shall not be, for you, an expression of power.” Drivers are advised to say their rosaries as a means to calm themselves with “rhythm and gentle repetition”. While this counsel was intended for the entire Catholic diaspora, it was most immediately directed at those motorists in furious circulation around the holy bubble of the Vatican City itself (where the speed limit is 30 kilometres per hour, and accidents are almost unheard of). Rome at large has been congested since ancient glory days – the first great global model for the grid pattern still favoured by urban planners, it was also the first to experience gridlock. Julius Caesar tried to combat this with an edict directing trade carts to make their deliveries at night, but that was revoked when residents complained about the noise.

Modern Roman drivers are inheritors of a street-level impatience which has evolved over two millennia to express itself in a local vehicular language of extended honks, esoteric taunts (usually referring to cuckoldry) and irreligious hand gestures. God’s emissaries have been compelled to intercede because secular measures will never bring a state of grace to traffic flow in the historic city centre, where the landmarks are immovable and the problem – so far – insurmountable. Ever more cars are looking for space on roads that are not now much bigger than when they were first laid down by the pre-Christian Republic. Central Rome was finally declared “zona a traffico limitato” in the late 1980s, with daytime access to the centre restricted to those drivers who can pay extravagantly for the requisite permit. Such zones are being extended ever further into the outlying districts of Trastevere and San Lorenzo, and there are new plans to impose similar limits at night. Last January, in an effort to reduce its markedly high atmospheric levels of benzene, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide and airborne particulate matter, Rome began a series of weekly traffic bans, closing all roads to all vehicles for several hours every Wednesday. (Exceptions have been made to accommodate football fixtures. And the conservative senator Gustavo Selva recently made his own way to a television interview during a traffic crackdown by faking a heart attack, calling an ambulance, and pretending that the television station building was the address of his specialist). The use of public transport, however, remains exceptionally low by European standards – accounting for less than 35% of motorised movement.

If Rome is no longer caput mundi (capital of the world) it does still serve as an old world example to the emerging metropoli of the 21st century, which are also ruled by private vehicles. And while engineers desperately build third andfourth lines on to the local metro system, the network won’t be complete until 2035. In the meantime, tunnelling work is regularly delayed by new archeological finds: the city’s past stands in the way of its progress.


Official estimates suggest that Seoul is more congested, and the number of cars and trucks in Shanghai is projected to quadruple by 2020, but there is still overwhelming anecdotal evidence for Bangkok traffic jams being so spectacular as to represent a new order of oriental strangeness and exoticism. In some parts of town, at certain times of day, average vehicle speed decelerates to one kilometre per hour. As with many pre-industrial cities – Bangkok was founded in the 1780s by Siamese King Rama I, to replace the old capital Ayutthaya, which was razed by the Burmese – the automobile has turned it into something and somewhere else. The sinuous network of canals which made this “the Venice of the East” were mostly filled in with concrete to create new roads, and the waterways that remain are so polluted that water hyacinths – which break down toxic material – now proliferate as a weirdly pretty sign of how badly choked they are.

Layered above the roads and rivers are the flyovers and multi-deck expressways built by successive city governments to relieve the pressure. Some of these were stopped dead in mid-air by funding freezes and policy reversals. A ne w public transport system, known as The Hopewell Project, was left hanging by the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, and its unfinished tracks are still there, the concrete pillars now holding up an elevated railroad to nowhere. Profiteering and electioneering were always factors in Bangkok urban planning, but when prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by last year’s bloodless coup d’état, traffic was cited as one good reason why, and Shinawatra’s proposed solutions have gone out of favour with him. Even a functioning bus rapid transit service, a new metro subway, overground railways and a skytrain – which relatively few use because of the high ticket price – have done nothing to unclog the city’s arteries. There are more than five million registered vehicles in Bangkok, and with local consumer credit extended to almost every prospective car-buyer, that number is rising faster than the infrastructure can handle. In 1994, British company, Peek Ltd, was commissioned to computerise Bangkok’s system and replace the human element – the city traffic police were themselves standing in for ineffectual light signals, but often seemed whimsical in directing the flow.

The city has since become one of the few urban areas not to be much improved by the Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique, which monitors traffic levels and sequences the lights. Bangkok’s very old telephone and electrical cables disrupted the signals or sent surges to the new mainframe. Recalcitrant Thai geckos crawled inside the sensor boxes, causing short circuits. And street cops sabotaged the system in fear for their jobs. “It’s better to turn it off and run the lights ourselves,” one Sergeant Suparb Eiamchang told Time magazine recently. “If humans built the computer, then we must be smarter than the computer.”


The second-largest metropolitan area in the world (after Tokyo), home to at least 20 million people, is still patterned on lines drawn by the conquistadors who built it. And those Spaniards were themselves merely tracing over the Aztecs’ symmetrical blueprint for their own great city, Tenochtitlan. Zocalo Palace, in the middle of town, occupies the same space where Cortez’s residence once stood, which was erected on the ruins of Montezuma II’s own seat of power. (Cortez is said to have later regretted burning down all that otherworldly pre-Columbian construction work.) Avenida de los Insurgentes, possibly the longest continuous street on the planet – longer even than Glasgow’s Great Western Road – follows an ancient path into the city centre that was never designed to support a traffic flow of six million cars. Chilangos,as modern residents call themselves, now average four hours per day commuting to work, all contributing to a perpetual state of complicado on the motorways, which frequently results in “carros atrapados” – vehicles so thoroughly gridlocked that they can only be liberated by co-ordinated assaults involving the helicopters, tow-trucks, motorcycle cops and computer systems of the Public Security Secretariat. Head traffic engineer Hernandez Garcia often leads these missions himself, leaving his control bunker to hang out of a chopper with a megaphone. Mexico City’s chronically unstable politics revolve around the issue in ways both figurative and physical. A popular protest last year caused a traffic jam that held up 500,000 automobiles on the periferico, a vast ring-road that once marked the city’s boundary but has long since been surrounded by ever-expanding sprawl.

Former mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obradorhada second level built on the periferico, but at
such a high cost to the public that he was voted out of office in the next election. Mexican Spanish has proposed no equivalent phrase for “road rage”, and chilangos would apparently prefer to endure interminable traffic jams than pay taxes towards such concrete yet uncertain solutions at the expense of their history-the periferico curves respectfully around the city’s most beautiful 17th century churches. “We are carrying the cultural burden of our past,” said director of traffic planning Sergio Anibal Martinez in a recent interview, “which is still present. The city grew in a contradictory manner, and people built things just thinking of the needs of the moment.”

The needs of his own moment have put Martinez in a bind. Determined not to address them with further building work (experts such as economist Anthony Downs, author of the influential field study Stuck In Traffic, have agreed that new roads often just provide new platforms for congestion), he is left with a limited range of compromised options. The city’s Sistema de Transporte Colectivo Metro is already one of the world’s most extensive and affordable public transit networks, but plans to extend it won’t change the fact that more than one million new cars join the complicado every year. The police issue 6000 citations to drivers each day, and it barely makes a dent in the general lawlessness of the traffic.

Plans to reinstate driving tests have been held off for the same reason they were scrapped in the first place – too many were paying bribes for their licences. The wealthy have also exempted themselves from the city’s Hoy No Circula programme – which allows only cars with certain licence plates to circulate on certain days – by simply buying extra cars. (The auto-industry lobby has ensured the rule doesn’t apply to newly-manufactured vehicles.) And the most prominent signs, so far, of a revolutionary popular backlash are the mountainous illegal speed bumps that residents build to ward traffic away from their own streets – Mexico City now has 10,000 of them.”They really are a nuisance,” says Martinez, “but people want them.”


There were no traffic jams under communist rule. Citizens of the Soviet Union had to wait for years on a list to own a car, and parts were in such short supply that drivers would get out at traffic lights to guard their windscreen wipers from street thieves. Automobiles have since become a symbolic means for Russians to distance themselves from the past. The resulting snarl of private vehicles – many of them black,armoured,and custom-built for oligarchs – is not a bad metaphor for the people’s frantic exercise of economic freedoms, especially those based on privatised oil and mineral rights. Moscow was founded in the 12th century, but only took on its modern aspect when the Soviets designated it their first city. Chief planner Yury Dolgorvy, then a hero of the motherland, allowed for a traffic flow of 180 motor vehicles per 1000 people. But he did not alter the underlying circular scheme devised for defensive purposes in the middle ages. There are now 300 vehicles for every 1000 Muscovites and only three motorways, arranged in rings around the centre.

Mikhail Blinkin,current directorof Moscow’s Scientific Research Institute of Transport and Road Engineering,has argued that a planned fourth ringroad (due for completion in 2012) will only “augment” the chronic congestion of the others, which is now so bad that all six lanes of the so-called Garden Ring recently came to a resounding standstill, forcing the players of Spartak football club off their bus and on to the city’s peerlessly busy and lavishly decorated metro system. Further, Blinkin says there is “no possible remedy to Moscow’s transport troubles which are caused by socio-political and institutional problems that specialists are simply not in a position to address”.

Generations of opaque socialist government have made the people averse to any road taxes or charges, because such policy is so often effected as bribery. The business community – effectively the new ruling class, and no more transparent in their dealings than Stalin was – have been especially hostile to those “reverse taxes” that direct money from petrol purchases into transport funding. Standard in the Western world, they were abolished to appease Russian corporate interests in 2000. Reserve plots of urban land have been sold off to the same interests, resulting in new officetowersandcondos where badly-needed public parking facilities might have stood. All of which has addedsharp edges of resentment to the everyday aggression of driving in Moscow.

“A motorist’s attitude to his peers is utterly barbaric,” says Blinkin. “Boys, you are not causing trouble for Mayor Yuri Luzhov or Putin when you park in the middle of the street – you are causing trouble for your brethren on the road.”

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