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Sunday, October 1, 2023

China’s transport network is the 8th wonder of the world.


When will The Gambia have good roads?

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By Talibeh Hydara

Two days ago, I stumbled on a short video on Twitter (should I say X? Elon Musk wants everyone never to forget their ex). The video displayed the wonders of a road infrastructure in Chengdu in SW China’s Sichuan Province. It’s a six-layer flyover wrapped around each other like noodles and other lines paralleled like uncooked spaghetti, connecting multiple major highways in the region.

Watching it gave me goosebumps. It’s pure poetry, not in words but in roads. In three decades, which is in my lifetime, China has quietly built the most interconnected country the world has ever seen. It is taking countries a century to reach that height. From Wuhan to Guangzhou; from Shanghai to Beijing; the nation is zipped by roads, bridges and railways. The video reminded me what I saw from one city to another; an incredible investment into public transport that knits the country and offers citizens mobility like no other. By investing in public transport; buses, subways and trains, China has managed to step ahead of everyone and also significantly reduced its carbon footprint. A stereotypical example is the common belief that breathing the air in Beijing has the same health risks as smoking 21 cigarettes a day. The air wasn’t good, yes, but step in Beijing now and see for yourself. It is crystal.

Its a six layer underpass in Chengdu
Six-layer underpass in Chengdu

China has nearly one million road bridges with the bending Ruyi Bridge a marvel of architecture, which has wowed the world since its completion. Its high-speed railroads are over 42,000km with more than 5,500 stations—the world’s largest—with plans to extend it to 200,000km by 2035. The transport network gives an elegant shape to the nation and everyone is catered for; cyclists, pedestrians, even those in wheelchairs.

That is China. Now let us talk about home. The Gambia is one of the few African countries still without a railway network. The primary transportation method here is via tarmacked and unpaved roads across the country. Even those roads, tarmacked or not, hardly make any difference because riding on them feels like climbing a mountain; bumpy and sloppy. Fifty-eight years after independence, we still cannot build a proper road network that will wake us up from this decades-long nightmare.

As someone who is privileged to know about signing of contracts, it takes at least a year before any tangible construction starts in The Gambia. In fact, half of the contract funds would very likely be missing midway through the construction works. Not just that, construction works are the slowest here. It takes people a year to even build a small corner shop, which slow pace infects even the government. Nothing is fast. The OIC roads construction, for example, is taking forever to complete with even the overpass bridge, the first ever in the country, is staggering to the finish-line. For more than three years, the road constructions move at a snail’s pace as people struggle to access good roads. The constructions started in 2021 and any serious country, within that period, could even build a road between planet Earth and Jupiter. In fact, the most frustrating projects are the feeder roads. There is one that connects Jimpex Road and Kairaba Avenue, passing over the Bakau back-way near the International Open University. That construction has been on for a year or so. The road is probably not more than 3km. Fellas, even if you construct just one meter every week, it would have finished by now. We always start road constructions a few months before the rainy season and use it as an excuse to stop. More than half of the feeder roads in the urban areas get suspended because rain water stagnates on them and forms a little river, making them unmotorable and dangerous.

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We have problems in the whole transport infrastructure. We have one airport and no planes. We have no railway. We have no roads. We have good bridges but no good boats as we continue to see our ferries get stuck in the sea and struggling to dock. That is a disaster we are ignoring we will discuss that in due course. 

Ruyi Bridge in Taizhou Zhejiang province
Ruyi Bridge in Taizhou, Zhejiang province

It is important to note that accessible public transport connects people to employment centres which empowers them to secure jobs. If there is no ferry between Banjul and Barra, it would be difficult for anyone to acquire a job on the other side. Their employment opportunities are limited to within their area because of a deplorable road network. I commute between Manduar and Bakau, getting on and off the vehicle three times before I reach office. I might feel that is too expensive but, in truth, car ownership is a bigger financial burden for any low-income earner. Fuel prices increase regularly and maintenance is equally costly. This is why the government should therefore heavily invest in public transport so that citizens would not feel the need to own a car.

Bertil Harding Highway overpass bridge under construction
Bertil Harding Highway
overpass bridge under

With effective road network, our lives can be much better. There will be less road accidents and we will enjoy effective delivery services, like food and online shopping. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t even introduce shared and electric bikes in The Gambia. Considering the high cost of fuel and tight roads, the government and even the private sector should think of a bike-rental industry to ease mobility in the country. I was amazed seeing shared bikes dotting the streets all across China and it is such a magnificent innovation. We can have that too but we first need to install effective road network. Then, a proper address system. Every house, every street, every road named and properly addressed. If not, you will order something and it will find itself in Mali.

Road construction or maintenance should also not be left to the government alone. Both the central and municipal governments have a role to play.

Entrance of Brikama main garage
Entrance of Brikama main garage

I have seen it not just in China but in Turkey as well where roads are not only cleaned but washed like clothes. You could even sleep on them. Those cleansing exercises are always done by the municipal governments. Now think of our case, how do you wash a road that’s not even tarred with 10,000ltr of stagnant rain water? We need collective desire and commitment to work with honesty in dispensing funds. If we don’t have a good road network, then we can kiss development goodbye. We have to start from the basics. We cannot skip it. Yes, there’s lack of employment in The Gambia but a more serious problem, in my opinion, is lack of employees. People are not serious and don’t want to work. Every day, all day, in the morning or at night, our times are spent on talking about politics and issues that have absolutely no relevance to our national development aspirations. That’s why every sector is filled with comfortable degree holders who don’t want to work or have no idea how to work. The first significant step toward sustainable development is a good road network. Unless we fix that, we will stay behind others. But like PLO Lumumba said, it can be done and it must be done, because if it is not done, then we are done.

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