The Growing Car Problem

This morning I was a little late to work, as usual, and by the time I got to the car park, there were no more empty spaces left. I got quite frustrated until I managed to sneak in my newly polished car into Marriot Hotel’s parking nearby.

When I started work here at Dancom, there was more than enough space in the large, gravelled area, just behind Marriot. It is the unofficial parking area for those visiting or working at the Evacuee Trust Center, the building’s own tiny parking being in the basement. Within these two months, I have seen the number of cars almost double and it looks like things will get a lot worse soon.

I’ve seen similar problems all over Islamabad. I had to change the route I take to work because the main highway connecting Islamabad to Rawalpindi and the airport is clogged with traffic in the morning. The CDA (Capital Development Authority) is widening it by adding another lane, but I doubt even that can keep up with the growth rate.

Try eating out at a decent place on a weekend. You’ll end up wasting as much time looking for a place to park as you will spend actually enjoying your food. And I can’t even begin to describe the horrors of trying to drive down Blue Area during office hours, let alone finding a parking spot.

I remember that just a few years ago, you could play cricket or badminton on most mid-sized roads and just give way to the one or two cars that drove by every half an hour or so. Right now, that’s unthinkable.

There seem to be a lot of causes for all this mess. Firstly, the number of people who can afford at least one vehicle has increased. Salaries are better than they’ve been for a while and leasing cars has become much easier and popular lately. Then a huge number of people have returned to Pakistan from overseas in the last couple of years, bringing with them lots of foreign currency and the comfortable lifestyle they were used to.

Then there is the great social pressure to own a car. Owning a car is a sign of success. It earns you respect and envy from those around you. It means that you can be indifferent to weather conditions or time schedules of buses and vans. In Tokyo, almost everyone I knew, including our CEO, often rode the train with us because it was faster, cheaper and less hassle than driving. Cars were usually used only by people in the suburbs and that too mostly for weekend outings. It was much the same in Singapore.

Public transport is still a joke here and even riding one of the Varan buses I once wrote about is not much different from being herded into a cattle truck. But that is still better than being stuffed into the smaller vans that have replaced every normal sized seat with two tiny ones. Even cab rides are not a very pleasant (or safe) experience. And this is just the Capital. The traffic situation in other large cities has worsened to the point of complete chaos.

Luckily, unlike other Pakistani cities, Islamabad is designed with some room to grow internally in the shape of green belts and open areas. Not the best idea to cut down trees to make way for roads, but it’s still better than traffic jams creating copious amounts of noise and air pollution.

What’s the solution? I would recommend a world class mass transit system that is clean, affordable, comfortable and gets you where you want to go in half the time. But that seems unlikely anytime soon since the population density isn’t that great in most of Islamabad and the places with higher densities lack most other basic necessities (such as a proper water and electricity supply). Plus, not everyone would be willing to pay a little bit extra for a more comfortable, faster ride.

They could do something similar to Singapore and make it less attractive to own a car. Tax single vehicle owners a little more and a lot more for more than one car, then use the extra revenue to improve public transport, build roads and car parks. Not something that people would welcome with open arms, but it’s for the best in the long run.