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sustainability

A Simple Solution to Kabul's Massive Traffic Problem

Working Traffic Light in Karte-Seh, Kabul Afghanistan. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
The thing about complex social systems is that they cannot be controlled.  They may organically self organize or self destruct, but the moment someone attempts to manage the system, everything will freeze up and fail. Traffic is a perfect example.  Admittedly, I've spent far less time on the issue of automobile traffic than most urban planners, but during the last two years that I've daily wrestled with car sickness from the stop-and-go struggle of driving across the city, I've thought a great deal about simple solutions to the Kabul traffic problem.  For those interested, I've also found a great research dissertation on this particular subject.  My analysis and proposal here is far simpler, as I have no fancy data or maps on hand, but lets just say it is based on 2 years of ethnography while living in three different parts of the city.

Kabul, Afghanistan 1960s. Source Unknown.
Kabul then, now, and gridlock
Everyone in Kabul agrees that the traffic problem could have been easily prevented.  In the 1960s and 70s the city didn't have any traffic problems, and in 2001 the city population was at less than half capacity and the city was leveled from decades of war.  Had reconstruction efforts actually began in 2002, the city infrastructure could have been quickly constructed for a population around 9 million people at little cost or inconvenience.  But this did not happen, and so today the city wrestles with around 6 million inhabitants and an infrastructure designed to handle only half of the that.  It is laden with power plays and corruption.  Cheap Chinese imports are jammed into every market and luxury products are more available than ever, although there is not a proportionate distribution of jobs or income to garner wide access to these goods.  

Various USAID and World Bank initiatives have done much in the last couple years to improve the quality of streets by paving dirt roads, repaving much of the downtown, and creating drainage systems. Of course this creates other problems as the construction causes extensive delays and the local population, with limited or nonexistent access to sufficient waste collection, use use the drainage for rubbish and sewage - causing massive backups and new public health risks. 

Small modular T-Walls around Kabul. Source Unknown.
Unlike first world cities, other special variables exist.  The city streets are also dominated by defensive infrastructure in the form of T-Walls, mobile partitians used to fortify security installations.  Major intersections are also blocked by police checkpoints.  Kabul is additionally bisected by a massive mountain, providing only two primary routes to relay traffic around the mountain, and a single-lane road that partially goes over the top.  Lastly the city has one working traffic light (sometimes) which seems to be acknowledged when reinforced by police presence.  

Previous Solutions
I've read several proposed solutions.  Some planners have proposed bans on car imports, the creation of new roads, the repair of street signs, and increased activity by police to enforce traffic codes.   Other solutions involve the development of expensive traffic management systems and facilities.  All of these ideas sound nice, but are more or less quite terrible.  These ideas all cost a lot of money, require a lot of time, will cause more delays, and require a higher level of discipline amont local authorities than available.  I've seen local police enforce traffic violations, and I've also twice witnessed extreme police brutality on citizens who ignored a simple law. We shouldn't really give these guys additional work to do.

So with all these problems, what can be done?


A Systems Approach
My proposal is very simple.  We create an incentive for alternative methods of transit and a disincentive for the current method of transportation.  We also use a very low-tech monitoring system so that police do not require any special training and corruption is offset.  

To succeed we must acknowledge that the chaos of Kabul's traffic is a self organized system determined by many variables.  We cannot control all those variables, nor can we expect that their management would prompt positive outcomes.  We can however provide simple incentives to nudge this system, but these simple incentives can only work if we can manage one or two of the variables that are the most interconnected to all the problems.  To do this, we can start with a trial approach in two particular locations.

First there are really only two ways to bypass the mountain.  One has a police checkpoint nearby, the other has checkpoints on either side.  Everyday between 3 and 6:30 pm, these roads are barely at a crawl, with nauseous drivers and passengers city in a fog of carbon monoxide.  It is not pleasant.


Two major corridors for traffic around the central TV Mountain of Kabul circled in blue. Google Earth 2012.

My 4-Step Solution to Fix Kabul Traffic:

1. Shift the police check points to the center of the corridors connecting the two sides of Kabul.

2. Make each side one-way, so that traffic is circulated around the mountain (though uncertain if this is necessary, needs to be tested).

3. Charge those driving a car 20 Afghani to pass through and provide a simple dated and numbered receipt (like something used at a raffle would may possibly suffice) specific to the car license plate (as we do have those).  Drivers will be charged a maximum of 100 Afghani per day.

4. Those using bicycles will be paid 20 Afghani as they pass through, and will receive up to 100 Afghani per day.

The cost/benefit of 100 Afghani is not excessive, about the cost of 2 USD, but it is significant enough to deter drivers and encourage bicycling.  A variation of this approach was used in Stockholm, wherein the city charged 2 Euro for automobiles to cross bridges into the city.  Notably it created immediate results, and while drivers initially complained, the same population described the project in positive terms after a matter of months.  In this Tedtalk, Jonas Elisson describes the success of this project.

Benefits
My proposal does not require any special funding.   It does not alter the existing infrastructure.  It is environmentally sustainable and can be easily expanded into other major congestion nodes in the city.  Furthermore, the increased use of bicycles over automobiles will increase safety as traffic accidents are the number one cause of accidents in Afghanistan.  It will improve security because car bombs are far more destructive and harder to catch than body-born explosives.  An insurgent on a bicycle will pose far less threat.  Additionally this activity will spur the development of locally produced bicycle manufacturing, sales, and repair - an existing market in Kabul but nowhere near a state of maturity while car sales are otherwise fairly saturated.

Risks
This proposal is not flawless. What is to be done if more people ride bikes than drive cars?  I'm not sure it would ever get to that point, and if it did, would phasing out the program invert the trend?  I cannot know for certain, but one thing is definite - the only way we can succeed is if we try.

Planning and Conflict in #Dadaab Refugee Camp: Land Use Law, Zoning Regulations


Violence erupted at Dagahaley camp (aerial view above), in the Dadaab Refugee Camps this week.  Rioting was incited when Kenyan police attempted to demolish a Mosque and small businesses.   According to UNOCHA, "Rioting broke out when police sought to disperse a crowd that was protesting an attempt to demolish illegal structures around a food distribution point. Teargas was used, and later live gunshot. Our information is that two refugees were killed and around a dozen injured."

The event raises several questions: for structures to be illegal, what sort of land use laws are in place within the camp? Who determines the legality of these structures?  How does the process work?

As it was Kenyan police attempting to demolish the site, we can assume that the Kenyan government serves as the enforcement body.  Other reports site that the demolition squad was acting on behalf of refugee aid agency that requested the demolition.  The same report cites the Director of Refugee Affairs as having requested the demolition, which is more likely since no aid agency is going to have the ability to use Kenyan Police.  Not to mention, aid agencies are the guest of the host nation, and do not have the ability to declare structures as "illegal" although the state may request the agency to curtail illegal processes.

A question comes to mind however, as the circumstance suggests some sort of zoning law and legal structure to oversee the regulation of land use within Dadaab.  There are planning processes undertaken by UNHCR and the Ministry of Refugee Affairs, as bore-holes, market spaces, and housing blocks are planned within each refugee camp.  In addition, efforts have been taken to relocate many of the settled refugees who occupy low lying land are subject to flooding.  The town of Dadaab and the surrounding camps however do feature a publicly accessible centralized plan nor is there a specific planning office to manage such issues.

In the meanwhile, it is expected that Dadaab will reach a total population of 450,000 by the end of 2011.  Other cities with about the same population size are Cleveland Ohio, New Orleans Louisianna, and Dublin Ireland - yet those cities all have economic infrastructure, transportation, and clean water.  In the meanwhile, thousands of Somalis are stuck living outside the camps, subject to harsh conditions, no water, no food, and violence.  It has been reported that men are working in shifts to guard their families from hyena attacks.  One of the major problems is that the UN refugee registration center is several days journey from the camps, positioning refugees needlessly in the way of danger.

The host government maintains its grip on the land, as the camps are beyond capacity with 370,000 refugees in need of protection. In the meanwhile the extension camp IFO 2, constructed by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 2007 remains mostly empty as the Kenyan Government refuses access to the camp and it remains nonoperational although several ngos are ready to implement services.

The Capacity for a New Egypt


There have been countless discussions and analysis' in the last several days regarding the future of Egypt.  As I have a rather personal relationship with Egypt, I have paid great attentions to these discussions.  Most often, they have focused on the lackluster stance of the United States, the omnipresent power vacuum, and the pivital role of the military in securing the state on behalf of the people or on behalf of Mubarak.  Facebook, blogs, and twitter posts have also been quick to point out all the things not being discussed: the role of women in the protests, the socio-economic conditions that led to this uprising, and a discourse on what exactly is the identity of the Muslim Brotherhood within the political landscape.  While Al Jezeera has done an excellent job of providing constant coverage, it seems that most American media have spent their time focussing on hypotheticals.  Not to simply add another analysis to the already cluttered pool, but there is one startling observation that remains heavily undiscussed: what are the assets in place for a better Egypt?  

I'll never forget a couple years ago when I went for a job interview with a non-profit founded and operated by Egypt's former Minister of Culture.  He had many impressive credentials, a nice office in a wealthy neighborhood, and project committed to improving relations between Egypt and Sub-saharan Africa.  In short, I accepted an agreement to do a lot of work and in the end was left stranded with with a rather bad situation.  Ultimately I concluded that the agency was simply a corrupt operation for this guy to siphon funds from the government.   The first thing that tipped me off, however, was the fact that this guy had no understanding of the broad scale of non-government organizations situated in Cairo to assist the most vulnerable populations and facilitate capacity building.

A quick google search alone will show one the variety of NGOs that have been long established in Egypt.  Notable agencies include The Egyptian Center of Human Rights, the NGO Support Center, Caritas, and St. Andrews Refugee Services.  Egypt is likewise full of Universities training engineers, scholars, researchers, and technicians at places such as Cairo University, Ain Shams University, American University in Cairo, and the The Future School.   While there certainly tens of millions of Egyptians without adequate access to education or viable livelihood options, there are also millions of Egyptians who are talented, business savvy individuals who have sought opportunities for self advancement their whole lives.

I'm not going to pretend to know what will happen to Egypt - but the possibility is part of the excitement.  Whereas in the past extremist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood were the only viable alternative to Mubarak's government, there is now the means for many other players to enter the field.  In a country that restricted the movement and access to services of its own people, there is now the possibility that a new generation of Egyptians could engage ladders for social mobility.  In contrast to living beneath a 30 year suspended constitution on the grounds of a "State Emergency," the people may express their opinions in newspapers and media outlets - including the internet - without fear of the police taking them away in the middle of the night.  

In contrast to news reports, the people I personally know in Cairo right now explain that the protests have remained generally peaceful.  That many citizens have been actively removing trash from Tahir square and other parts of the city to show this is no longer the downtrodden Egypt of Mubarak. That the crowds are overwhelmingly shouting slogans of universalism to overcome perceived hostilities between Christians and Muslims or rich and poor.  

The struggle for Egypt will remain for sometime.  But I do not perceive this struggle to be frightening, rather it is simply an honest expression of its people, as founded by necessity.  And hopefully, soon, when the country is able to pass over the present precipice of tensions and protest, and move toward resolution in the form of a new government, there will be some recognition of an easily over-looked, yet pre-existing infrastructure.  An infrastructure of longstanding mosques, churches, business owners, academics and non-profits all equally committed to a better Egypt.  This commitment is not new, it has always been there, but  like a plant bursting through the soil to see the sun for the first time, this commitment has the space to live and grow.

Now Online: An Assessment of Sphere Humanitarian Standards for Shelter and Settlement Planning in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camps

Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for The New York Times

I am pleased to announce that my graduate Community Planning thesis in International Development is now online.  Although it has been published to various academic research databases, I am also making it available online through this blog.  For those interested in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter's Minimum Standards, this thesis examines the applicability of the Sphere emergency shelter standards to a protracted crisis, specifically the Dadaab refugee camp.  The research process includes an assessment of local shelter construction, refugee camp design by the Norwegian Refugee Council within Ifo II, and an older pres-sphere agency shelter design.  Research was conducted in the Dadaab camps  in 2007 with follow up research in 2009.  To download the pdf, just click the link below.   I am also pasting a copy of the abstract below.





Abstract

This thesis examines the viability of Sphere Humanitarian Shelter Standards within the construction of Ifo II, a new refugee camp in the Dadaab refugee camps of northeastern Kenya in 2007.  One of the largest refugee settlements in the world, the Dadaab camps contain over 300,000 refugees and have been in place since 1991.  As the Sphere Standards have been designed for use within an emergency crisis, this thesis investigates their applicability in the protracted settlement of Dadaab by utilizing a recent shelter initiative as a case study.

In 2007, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) initiated a new housing and camp expansion project in Dadaab to accommodate future population growth and to overcome many of the problems of the earlier camps.  Committed to sustainable solutions for displaced populations, the agency relied upon the Sphere Standards as a means to provide culturally, environmentally, and economically appropriate housing and infrastructure planning.   To determine if Sphere Standards meet the needs of the refugee populations, three months of qualitative research were undertaken within the Dadaab camps in 2007, with additional follow-up research in 2009.   Field research focused on the socioeconomic roles of informal housing consolidation strategies in the camps, pre-Sphere agency-provided housing, and the new NRC camp expansion.

Field research revealed that Sphere does not provide the tools necessary to contend with the matured socioeconomic dynamics of a protracted settlement. By expanding the standards to include a stronger recognition of the conditions which frame the lives of those in protracted displacement such as national policies, regional conflict, and local market activity, Sphere will provide humanitarian agencies with the means to provide displaced populations with better shelter and settlement solutions.