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Sunday, March 3, 2024

The transportation cost of poor urban planning

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Dr. Ousman Gajigo

There have been many neglected sectors since this country became independent. But few have been as glaringly neglected in The Gambia as urban planning. There is no equivalent of a Minister of Urban Planning. While we do have a “physical planning” unit, it is more widely known for its inefficiencies than for any planning job. Unlike other sectors, urban planningis so completely forgotten that one does not even hear the usual lip service. This is a major oversight bordering on criminalnegligence given that The Gambia is now one of the most urbanized countries on the whole African continent.

When the country gained its independence in 1965, it was highly rural with about 85% of citizens being rural residents. And the country remained largely rural throughout the first republic. But if long-term projections had been considered by the government at the time, the reality today would not have been a surprise to anyone. The Gambia today is about 65% urban, which means that about 1.7 million out of our population of 2.7 million live in urban areas. Outside of tiny island state of Cape Verde, The Gambia is the most urbanized country in the ECOWAS region. Over the past 20 years, the urban population has been growing at a rate of about 4% per annum. This growth rate translates to almost 70,000 people moving into urban areas of The Gambia every single year.

This means half a million individuals moving into urban areas every decade. Such a massive and permanent movement of people without planning has negative implications for every aspect of society. First and foremost, it means land use proceeds in an unplanned and chaotic manner. Whether it is housing or agriculture or other uses of land, the problems start manifesting themselves only after it becomes almost too late.

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Urban planning is a critical element of strategies for manysectors – more so for a country that is as heavily urban and land-scarce as The Gambia. This is particularly important in the area of infrastructure. This is because most type of infrastructure cannot be moved once constructed in a particular area. Since infrastructure is a long-term investment, careful attention must be paid not only to the long-term demand but its spatialdistribution as well.

For the purpose of this particular article, I will limit the discussion to urban mass transit since an opinion article cannot do justice to the complex process of urban transportation planning. The only form of mass transport system we have in The Gambia has been by GPTC, which has now been replaced by the GTSC. But most of the buses serve routes between urban and rural towns and villages, which does not come close to addressing the urban transportation problem. So we are stillcritically missing a mass transit system that is designed to serve transportation needs within the increasingly urban areas of the country. As anyone who has passed by Westfield or Tabokoto or Brusubi Turntable or numerous other major transportation nodesduring rush-hour can testify, there is a massive need for public transit system in the country. People spend hours waiting for a vehicle to take them a distance of less than 5km.

A proper transportation planning would identify the overall objective of the country in terms of how we envision urban living not only today but decades to come. The roles of the various government agencies and non-government entities would also be highlighted. It would then identify what policies and investments are needed, as well as the modes of transportation to prioritize given our context. Out of this process, a rational plan for mass urban transit would emerge.

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This absence of an urban mass transit system in a congested area is quite costly. First, it is directly costly for the people who spend a good part of their day looking for transportation goingto and from work. Time spent standing under the sun is time that could be more productively used with family or at work. Lack of public transportation means more private cars on the road, which aggravates traffic congestion and greater pollution. This creates lost opportunities for everyone, with major adverse impact on the economy and quality of life.

It is particularly costly for the poor. Without proper urban transportation system, poor people are forced to live close to where they work since they cannot afford the transportation cost. But the types of available housing that are reasonably close to centers of economic opportunities are unaffordable to poor people, and the cost of commuting from where areas they can afford to live is exorbitantly high. As a result, slums tend to develop as an answer for the poor to make a living, particularly when there is no urban transit system and there is a general lack of urban planning.

It is true that The Gambia does not have famous slumps like those found in some African countries. But this is just an issue of scale. Poor neighborhoods in urban areas in The Gambia share all the features of famous slumps in Africa in the form of sub-standard housing, unsanitary living conditions, and lack of access to basic infrastructural services such as water, electricity and roads. The emergence of slum-like conditions exacerbates the effects of an unplanned urban growth as it becomes costly to provide services for these areas even if housing becomesregularized.

Even in the absence of a full-scale urban planning, addressing public transportation needs within our urban areas is quitefeasible. After all, the demand for transportation is high, predictable and upward trending. This is the sort of market dynamics that would entice even the most risk-averse financial institution to be positively predisposed to financing. Given the current urban context, implementing an urban transit system is best handled by the central government rather than the municipalities. After all, the Greater Banjul area spans more than one local government jurisdiction, where most people live in one local government area and work in another. This means that key transportation nodes span multiple local government jurisdictions, which will complicate administration of a transit system for a single municipality. Therefore, a well-integrated transit system would have to be managed by an entity that can operate across multiple local government areas.

It is also important to discuss the mode of transportation. In our Gambian context with low income, low car ownership and high population density, it would make sense to center any future urban transportation system around a public bus or light rail system. An urban bus system is easy to finance and implement immediately. This would necessitate creating a new corporate entity rather expanding the mandate of GTSC. The current GTSC should be repurposed to focus exclusively into rural-urban transportation, which is what it is mostly doing at the moment.

There is a future for light rail system in The Gambia to further ease urban transportation as urban population surges and the number of cars increase due to higher incomes. Unfortunately, past and current poor urban planning are increasing the cost of its implementation in the country. One way in which it could have been easily integrated in the current OIC roadconstructions would entailed leaving a much wider median between the lanes in the Bertil Harding Highway for the laying of future train tracks. However, with the ongoing construction, any future light system would have to be on an elevated track. While still feasible, it would be a much more costly relative to a rail system at the ground level.

It goes without saying that developing a well-functioning urban transport system needs good roads. A well-thought-out roadsmasterplan covering the whole Greater Banjul area needs to be in the place even before any financing is secured. Despite the current construction of the OIC-funded roads, we are quite far from the level of good road infrastructure to support a growing economy. In any case, the implementation of the OIC-funded project is a classic case study of poor execution.

First, we have experienced significant delays for a project that is supposed to be grant funded. Second, the execution of the project did not follow initial plans, which was supposed to see several smaller roads in Bijilo and Brusubi constructed prior to the construction of the main road. To drive home the lack of seriousness of the Barrow government when it comes to planning, please have a look at a YouTube that the government released 3 years ago.

The video purports to show the plan for the Bertil Harding highway. The video is first of all notable for its sub-standard production quality given that it is supposed to illustrate and visualize a major national infrastructure project that will cost millions. The fact that a ministry or agency would consider that an acceptable quality for public release is illustrative of the low standards in Barrow’s government. As can be seen, the road that is actually being constructed now bears little resemblance in keyfeatures with the plan in that video. Specifically, critical aspects of a road plan such as the width of the median are not adhered to, which is not a minor change. Life-saving pedestrian overpasses are no longer part of the current construction plan. A tunnel at the Kairaba Avenue intersection, the maintenance of which would have been a very tall order for any government run by Adama Barrow, has been mercifully and quietly shelved.

We need better urban planning in general, and the current reality in the transportation sector leaves a lot to be desired. The current government cannot be relied upon to deliver the results the nation needs. The future development of the country is at stake for this major dropping of the ball.

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