I have shared some thoughts on housing and transportation in the context of urban planning in The Gambia. Another neglected but important part of urban planning is roads. I’m not referring to the shortage of good roads – but the planning for it. It is one thing to construct new roads or rehabilitate existing ones. It is another to have a roads master plan, which guides the construction of future roads to improve the livability of urban areas.
Nothing illustrates the absence of roads planning in The Gambia than the construction of the OIC-funded arterial road from the Airport Junction to Old Jeshwang. The massive bottlenecks that we are now experiencing at Brusubi and Sukuta will likely negate a lot of the gains that are expected from the new construction. Many people mistakenly assume that the recent jams are being caused by the on-going construction. But that is not the case. The unusual traffic jams are the results of the absence of road design. The key sites of the major bottlenecks are Sukuta-Jabang junction and the Brusubi Turntable, where there are no restrictions on access that can be blamed on-going construction. Rather, the bottlenecks in these locations are the direct results from the bad design of the road. Therefore, those intolerable congestions will only get worse with time unless changes are implemented.
The OIC-funded construction of this major stretch of road has been a theater of incompetence from the very beginning. We have had a major delay in the start of the construction, in addition to the fact that the construction has been proceeding at a snail pace. Furthermore, there was no plan upon which the current construction was based on. The government decided to start the construction without a careful consideration about how this new road should be integrated into a larger urban planning.
A brief look at this major construction can clearly show the debacle we are heading into and provides a cautionary tale about the immense cost of lack of planning. One does not have to be a transportation engineer to see the obvious flaws. Let’s consider intersections or turning points. The existing ones are badly-spaced, particularly between Senegambia and the Old Yundum. It is true that the turning points should be minimized in a multi-lane arterial road to minimize accidents but it makes no sense that there is only one crossing opportunity at Brusubi for vehicles traveling between the Sukuta-Jabang junction and the Senegambia area in Kololi. This means that all travelers heading to Bijilo, Brusubi, Kerr Serign, Brufut, Sukuta, and many other locations are forced into an unbearable bottleneck at Brusubi. To aggravate the congestion in this spot, the off-ram roads are unreasonably narrow even though there is ample space. Any sensible planning should have foreseen the nightmarish bottleneck.
Another major shortcoming in design is the absence of an overpass at Sukuta-Jabang junction. This is a busy intersection with a known heavy traffic volume well before construction got underway. Yet, the authorities were apparently surprised that it has become a major bottleneck every single day starting from 5:00pm and extending for hours. This glaring oversight could have been avoided with the requisite planning. The time wasted and vehicle damage from overheating in that spot almost wipes away the expected gains that are associated with road construction.
Another major design flaw is the absence of any consideration for pedestrian welfare. Throughout the whole length of the 6-lane road from the Airport Junction to Kairaba Avenue, there is not a single safe place where pedestrians are able to cross without dangerously dodging speeding vehicles. The elderly, children and the disabled will be particularly vulnerable. Already, several fatalities involving pedestrians getting run over by speeding vehicles have been recorded. These preventable fatalities are the direct consequences of incompetence and dereliction of duty.
This disaster of a lack of planning of this major road construction is a microcosm of a general lack of urban planning in roads in The Gambia. What should have preceded the construction of this OIC-funded road is not only its own planning but a general road master plan covering all of the Greater Banjul area at the very least. As in any plan, the key part is to clearly identify the goal, which should be straightforward. A road master plan should aim to sustainably and safely meet the communication needs of not only present but future residents and businesses. With the goal clearly articulated, the sequencing of the necessary activities will almost suggest themselves if managed by competent individuals. To ensure that the target goal is met, critical indicators such as time saved, pedestrian deaths and vehicle accidents, among others, are tracked.
The first major activity in the design a roads masterplan is consultative process and an information data gathering phase. A key part of information pertains to traffic volume, patterns and projections. This process requires not only a strong local government in place but a good collaborative relationship with the central government. Unfortunately, the government of Adama Barrow is ill-suited for this task since it is not only dismissive or oblivious of the need for local government reforms but is hellbent on fighting local governments for purely political reasons.
Another key element of roads master plan is the careful consideration of the local context such as population and spatial distribution. The need for context consideration is critical for any problem-solving endeavor but particularly needed for this context. The most important part of the local context is the high urban population growth that is unevenly distributed in our main urban areas. The urban growth is currently highest in Kombo North and South, as well as parts of Kombo Central. The design of an arterial road such as this project, which passes through Kombo North should be cognizant of this reality because a simple population projection would clearly demonstrate that the importance of these areas will be even greater in the next two decades.
With a roads master plan, nationally and also in urban areas, a hierarchy of the importance of roads will be identified. In other words, not all roads are of equal importance in terms of priority. It is worth adding that the order of importance does not necessary coincide with the sequence of construction. For instance, while the construction of the Bertil Harding highway is clearly more important than the construction of the relatively short Sukuta-Bijilo road, the construction of the latter should have preceded the former given the local context in terms of minimizing bottlenecks. We are currently enduring the consequences of ignoring this obvious common sense. The same argument holds for any of the minor roads linking Brufut with Bijilo that bypasses the main Brusubi junction. Currently, we have little prioritization with road constructions nationally. There are currently many roads being constructed around the country for purely political reasons, which are far superseded in urgency by roads in urban areas such as Brikama and other parts of the Kombos.
A proper roads master plan is highly complementary to other components of urban planning in general but other infrastructural projects. For instance, major infrastructure such as water drainage, sewage and water mains heavily influenced by road design, particularly along an important artery such as the OIC-funded road. The absence of planning means that the cost of such future developments will be even higher.
To conclude with the OIC-road issue at hand, a successful road construction project is supposed to lead to significant time savings for commuters, lower vehicle maintenance cost and lower traffic fatalities. As a result, there should be improved safety for all road users, better connectivity, lower cost of goods and services and greater economic growth, among others. This OIC-funded project is already failing in these important criteria not because of unfinished construction but due to lack of design. Instead of having a world class arterial road, we will be left with a massive misuse of resources that is only a marginal improvement over the existing situation. Unless this problem is recognized and addressed, this project will be a major monument of missed opportunity.