By Dr Frank C Smigura -
Beautiful Muscat is drowning in a relentless sea of an ever increasing number of cars. For proof, all one needs to do is to look around or drive on one of the roads or highway in the city.
It is a sad predicament and the scenario invites a number of questions, such as: What is the cause of the problem? Is the deleterious development really inevitable? Can anything be done to stop the destructive trend?
Let’s first examine the situation in an effort to identify some of the causes responsible for the prevailing trend and then look at some workable remedies.
It must be obvious to anybody, even to a casual observer that the roads in Muscat are congested. Is it because Muscat does not have enough roads? Comparing to any other big Western city there does not seem to be a shortage of roads in Muscat or Oman. The problem is that there are simply too many cars for the given capacity of the roads.
I’ve been in Muscat for more than 23 years and up until 6 to 7 years ago the traffic in the city was quite normal, by any standard. Then, quite abruptly, the number of cars reached a “critical volume” and ever since, the beautiful city of Muscat has been drowning in a sea of cars. No matter where one looks, cars are everywhere, often parked in a haphazard, undisciplined manner.
If this trend persists, Muscat will end up in the same class of so many overcrowded, polluted, unattractive large cities around the world. Is this what the Muscat planners want?
One factor contributing to the problem is readily discernable. Even though the roads are overcrowded by cars, they “serve” only a limited number of people, far less than is their capacity. Why so? The reason is that 90-95 per cent of cars are occupied by one person only.
The second striking revelation is that, no matter how hard one looks, there are no buses or any other public transport vehicles to be seen. Compared to other big cities, this is a serious anomaly. Indeed, lack of efficient public transport is the core of the problem, the real reason for the congestion of the roads in Muscat.
The current state of affairs is not sustainable. To find a remedy is not an easy task and more than one option as to what may be the appropriate and workable solution should be examined.
What are the options?
1. Constructing new roads: There seems to be road widening or constructions everywhere, but the benefits of such projects are questionable. Adding new roads is not the solution it is only a temporary respite and in the long run, it will have the opposite effect. The expanded road network will attract more cars and ultimately that will make the situation worse. In biology this is called “positive feedback” and nearly always, the end result is deadly.
Furthermore it appears that most of the new roads in the city are built or rerouted to serve cars rather than people. Service roads and streets are transformed to throughways with very little possibilities to enter or exit the roads. On a number of locations to turn left requires driving a kilometre or more to a stoplight to make a U-turn and then driving back to the intended point of turning left.
2. Reducing the number of cars: Common sense would dictate that there is a need to implement measures that would decrease the number of cars on the roads. There are two ways to accomplish this: First, increase the number of passenger per vehicle by offering incentives for higher occupancy of the cars. Secondly, and this is the major step forward, to eliminate large fraction of cars from the roads can be achieved by developing an alternative mode of transport in a form of an efficient Public Transport System.
In my opinion such a solution would be rewarding in many ways. The number of cars on the roads would be reduced considerably and the remedy would be permanent and adjustable in accordance with evolutionary trends. Economically, if chosen and implemented with care, public transport would be cost effective, probably cost less than building and expanding roads and freeways.
An efficient public transport system is nothing new. To see and “feel” such operation, all one needs to do, is to visit some of the large cities in Europe. Most of these places went through stages of development, just like Muscat.
In late fifties and sixties most of these cities embarked on developing efficient public transport systems in different forms. Very quickly car users realised (and I was one of them) that it is much faster, less expensive and less aggravating to take the public transport. As a result, in some cities the number of cars on the roads decreased by up to 50 per cent and so did the rate of accidents. Cities became less congested, less polluted, cleaner and more livable.
Furthermore, many localities declared the central area of the city (usually 2 to 3 sq km) as “car free zone”, for pedestrians only. Supply vehicles enter the restricted areas only during certain hours.
Why could not the city of Muscat do the same? The shape of Muscat footprint is conducive to develop an efficient transport system. In principle, the network would consist of a long corridor track running west to east with several feeding arteries from north and south.
With regards to the vehicles, one of the most efficient, clean and economical modes of transport are trolleybuses, which are buses running on electricity drawn from cables suspended from steel posts. The cost of development of such network is much lower than building a metro or street tram system.
The country with a vast experience with this system is Czech Republic, Scotland and others. They have been using and exporting trolleybuses to many countries and have expertise in development of such systems.