Sunday, September 27, 2020

Road rage ÔÇô the new war on our roads

If the Department of Roads were a medical doctor attending to an obese patient with one foot in the grave, his medical advice to the dying patient would be: Buy pants one size bigger.

This is how a prominent architect and property developer, Luc van der Casteel, explains the rage on Gaborone roads.

I am sitting with van der Casteel two weeks after Sunday Standard published an editorial that called the Western Bypass a death-trap. The following day, all zebra crossings on the Western Bypass were blacked out. Could this be coincidence?

Van de Casteel who is the Molapo Crossing property developer says he saw it coming. He has been warning against this for years. During meetings with the Department of Roads in a working committee set up by the Ministry to resolve the reduced accessibility to Molapo Crossing, Molapo Crossing management repeatedly warned against the continued insistence by the Department of Roads to allow speeds of 80 km per hour.

During a committee meeting of December 2010, the Department of Roads was notified that the recommended speed at zebra crossings is 30 km / hour. The Director of Roads stuck out his index finger and insisted that higher speed must be maintained. Doing away with the zebra crossings, however, has not resolved the problem. Pedestrians are now crossing the road where they like, making the problem worse.

The Department of Roads has now decided to up the stakes. They are erecting barriers along the western bypass. The message is loud and clear: Pedestrians are not welcome to cross the road or walk from intersection to intersection if they want to cross the road. Anyone crossing the road must accept the law of the mighty car and not complain if they get scraped off the tarmac.

The irony of it all is that the Western Bypass is not even a bypass anymore. The Department of Roads, however, will not accept that the city has doubled since the bypass was planned and is instead throwing millions of Pula at the problem hoping money will buy the now moribund bypass a longer life span. The bypass, however, is now in the centre of the city, no longer bypassing the city. It cuts the town in half. It has become a serious problem that will not be resolved by enlarging it and making it impossible to cross by foot.

Van de Casteel explains that “ring roads, as they are called in other parts of the world only function when they circle the town. Because towns grow, such roads have to be regularly moved to the new outskirts of the city. Taking a historic city such as Brussels, one will note that the first ring road around the town is now in the centre of the town and totally pedestrianised. The new ring is the fifth ring and it has just been completed. Keeping those ring roads functioning as ring roads is a fallacy that will never work. Gaborone is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. The new western bypass has to be constructed as far as past Bokamoso Hospital to the west”.
Even international consultants agree that spending millions on an outdated bypass is a waste of money. A multimodal transport study undertaken by international consultants, for the Roads Department, advised the GOB to reduce traffic by alternative planning. The study advised that a compact city should be the preferred model over the current planning preference for the uncontrolled urban growth. The study revealed that mixed development must not only be tolerated, but must be the preferred model to reduce traffic and increase the quality of life in Gaborone.
Van de Casteel explains that the Department of Roads was advised to embrace the principles of new urban planning, but it keeps on using traffic solutions from years gone by. The Department of Roads believes that traffic problems are best left to engineers, rather than planners.

“Engineers can only attend to the symptoms of the disease, but they cannot even begin to cure the sickness. When visiting a doctor with an obesity problem, the advice of the doctor will be to lose weight. The doctor will never advise you to buy wider trousers! The engineers advise, however, is not to reduce traffic, but to widen the road,” he says.

Whilst international consultants advised the Department of Roads to reduce traffic, the department turned up its nose at the advice and chose to spend millions of tax payers’ money on upgrading a bypass that stopped being a bypass years ago.

The Director of Roads, Kabo Kote, told the media recently that the Molapo Junction will not be changed. This is despite the fact that he has already agreed to change it in 2017. The public is kept in the dark and millions of pula are being thrown at an intersection which the Department of Roads decided to replace before it was even built. Consultants engaged by the Department of Roads in 2005 advised that a synchronised level crossing will not work and will need to be replaced as soon as funds are available.

The Roads Department decided on an intersection as a temporary solution. The department also was advised that the Western Bypass is no longer a bypass and a new “real” bypass ought to be constructed.

The Department of Roads, together with the World Bank then engaged specialists to advice on how to plan the network for the city in the future. The Multimodal traffic study was ready for public scrutiny in December 2010. Until now the GOB has not decided on its implementation and continues to take half-measures to address problems as they arise.

Van de Casteel exclaims: “Painting the zebra crossings black and hoping that the problem is solved is like the ostrich burying its head in the sand and hoping that the problem is not existing.
“So why are we perpetuating the problem? Why are we to spend millions on solutions that will not work?

“Solving a traffic problem is not solely an engineering issue. It requires far more than an engineer with a very big budget. It requires an overall plan that will be implemented by different departments and at different times.

Every engineer agrees that traffic jams are best handled by reducing traffic. Every engineer will agree that he is only attempting to attend to the symptom of the sickness, but he cannot cure the problem.

What is required is planning by our city planners. It is they who created the problem and only they who will be able to solve the problem. The idea of planning alternative traffic solutions is not new,” say Van der Casteel.

He further explains that “some countries implemented solutions that are, for Botswana, weird and incomprehensible. (London City prohibits driving on certain days to certain cars.) Planning differently is not a fashion, but has become a necessity in the fight against noise and air pollution.

The engineers at our Roads Department are tasked with resolving the existing traffic problem. It is real and is getting worse. Would an alternative solution be possible, and if so, how do we implement it within the constraints of our limited ‘traffic” authority?”

One school of thought insists that The Department of Town and Regional Planning must implement traffic control measures in their designs: Some fundamental design decisions are required. Botswana is being called to answer some of the most pressing questions: Should we continue giving absolute preference to motorized traffic? Should cars still be the preferred means of transport? Is simply changing the size of the servitude, depending on the zoning, adequate? Can we keep on designing towns horizontally, or should we design them vertically? Designing a town is after all a three dimensional process. Most experts argue that Botswana should try to avoid traffic where possible:
“Lifts handle vertical traffic far better than cars handle horizontal traffic. Building at least seven floors high in the cities avoids traffic. People live closer to one another, closer to the required amenities and can, if planned properly, walk to such amenities. Use land sparingly by allowing different uses on one plot. This reduces the need for motorized transport and increases the efficiency of the town. Promote the use of electronic communication, where possible. The planning of our towns has severely suffered because of the outdated perception that nobody should work from home. The council is still evicting businesses from houses. Planners should understand that every business starts small. Microsoft and Apple started in the garage of their respective houses. Transport was not an issue and renting office space was also not required. It allowed them to be self sufficient and feasible, even in their starting up period.

Van de Casteel further explains that “In many countries, and within several firms, working at home is stimulated. Working on computer at home, using internet and e-mail, has made it possible to be as effective as working in the office, and some are even more effective. Even having to meet, and drive to the destination, can be avoided when using software like SKYPE or OOVOO. It is free, and far more effective than wasting productive time driving from A to B. It is environmentally friendly and saves millions of liters of petrol.”

Van de Casteel also argues that Botswana should avoid concentrations of office developments, spread them in town: “Whilst the Government Enclave was a good idea in 1965, because of the now available technology, it is becoming an impediment to resolving the traffic situation. The continued adding of office space in such a concentrated area is responsible for massive traffic jams. There is no reason any longer why all these departments should be housed adjacent to one another. Electronic communication is ensuring better communication and avoids traffic. Spread the Governments offices, preferably over the country. Centralized office spaces were there to avoid traffic in 1965. They are now achieving the exact opposite, and are one of the main reasons for the traffic congestion in Gaborone today.

Van der Casteel also has a problem with the Central Business District which has become the new buzz in corporate boardrooms.

“The CBD idea is outdated and will create massive traffic jams. The engineers predicted it and the planners know it, but somehow the nostalgic dream that Gaborone needs a CBD will not go away. It is a monster in the making and based entirely on an idea that was fashionable in 1950, when virtually every second city in the western world was flattened by the war. Those cities that implemented the CBD idea are now living with the legacy. Johannesburg is our closest example. The Council is spending billions on undoing the idea of a CBD. They are converting office blocks into residences! They are doing everything to reduce the office component and replace it with areas that attract PEOPLE! The CBD is still dead after 17H00 and bringing people back into the city is their top priority. Some, daring artist or adventurous thrill seekers, are now moving into town. They work next door and need not spend at least 2 to 3 hours in traffic jams. They drive against the traffic and are reaping the rewards of being alternative, different.

Please let us, if we really need to have a CBD, have a CBD with people living there. Make the city centre save by making sure there are people living. It will reduce the office component drastically, reduce the traffic and restore some sort of security to the area. Better still; cancel the idea of a CBD.

Promote mixed developments and scatter office components throughout the town. The house is always the preferred office. Embrace the idea. Stop the outdated idea that only an office is suitable for office work. Stop evicting doctors from houses. Stop evicting lawyers from houses. Stop evicting crèches from houses. The last real freezing spell in Europe forced many to stay at home. Nobody could get to work. Some companies now understand, because of the cold spell, that their employees worked just as good from home. Some companies were prepared to admit that their best employees delivered better work from home than when using the office space! I am an architect and when I need to concentrate and deliver under pressure, I will NEVER work from the office.
Continues next week

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.