Managing Amman's Traffic
Urban Crossroads #72

  Increasing traffic congestion in Amman calls for effective management of the city's road network. (The Jordan Times)

Increasing traffic congestion in Amman calls for effective management of the city's road network. (The Jordan Times)

Amman’s increasing traffic congestion problems seem to be on everybody’s mind. One indication of this is how Amman’s traffic has become a most common subject of conversation at social gatherings. The conventional wisdom usually exchanged at those gatherings is that part of the solution to Amman’s traffic problems lies in expanding the city‘s road network. This in fact will cause more harm than good. New and expanded roads tend to generate increased traffic and simply will create more insoluble traffic congestion problems in the long term. In contrast, I have heard planners assert that for a city the size of Amman, the existing road network is more than adequate. The solution to the city’s compounding traffic congestion problems accordingly does not lie in more roads, but in a more effective management of Amman’s existing road network.

An effective management of Amman’s road network most probably will need to incorporate a number of solutions that are commonly used elsewhere. There will be a need to limit or even ban parking along a good number of the city’s streets. There even might be a need to institute congestion pricing according to which vehicles would be charged for using a number of the city’s heavily-trafficked zones or streets. And, of course, there will be a need to encourage increased pedestrian movement throughout the city and also encourage the use of public transportation among as many of the city’s residents as possible.

It has been stated that the master-plan currently being drawn up for Amman eventually will include a comprehensive transportation component. This component most probably will incorporate some or all of the solutions mentioned above. One cannot emphasize enough the importance of such a component for the health of the city, for a city through which people cannot move efficiently and comfortably is a dysfunctional city. Developing an effective transportation strategy for any city, however, is a very complex and delicate undertaking, one that cannot be taken lightly.

As such a transportation strategy is being developed for Amman, a few issues need to be considered. Most importantly, such a strategy cannot be another slightly modified off-the-shelf generic solution that Western consulting firms routinely deliver in developing-world contexts. The strategy needs to show an intimate and in-depth knowledge of Amman’s physical composition, its growth, and the patterns of movement in the city as well as to and from it. This cannot be achieved by having someone from abroad with a declared expertise in transportation planning make a few quick visits to the city, but only by ensuring that a team of qualified specialists spends extensive periods of time residing in the city and moving through it, in private cars, in public transportation buses, and on foot.

Even if a technically competent transportation strategy is developed for Amman, such a strategy will not be very useful if issues of implementation and enforcement, as well as reception and acceptance by the public, are not thoroughly considered. Any strategy needs to ensure that there are suitable institutional and human resources with the necessary capacity and will to implement and enforce it. Amongst other things, transportation-related regulations need to be adhered to, and violators of such regulations need to be penalized.

Also, people’s conceptions and attitudes towards public transportation will need to be thoroughly transformed. Currently, public transportation primarily is used by those who cannot afford their own vehicle or who cannot afford using taxis on a regular basis. This has to change, and public transportation simply will have to be accepted and embraced by all, the poor and the affluent.

Accomplishing all of this will be a challenge. Amman’s record over the past four decades regarding transportation strategies has not been an encouraging one, and has reflected a process of continuous degeneration. The city for many years did have a decent and workable public transportation system that was used by all segments of society and that depended on shared cars (what is known as the “service” car system), but that system did not evolve to accommodate the city’s spectacular sprawling growth that has been taking place since the 1970s. In addition, the frightening and increasing number of traffic accidents from which Amman suffers provides a disturbing reminder that the issue of transportation management in the city remains far from being adequately resolved.

The difficulties that face Amman as it attempts to deal with its transportation challenges may be summed up in a personal anecdote. Over the years, I have regularly driven through a major wide artery in Amman that has three lanes on each side. Whenever I drive back home through this artery at times of heavy traffic, the movement of vehicles invariably comes to a near standstill for a stretch of a few hundred meters along it. The reason for this is that even though parking along the street is prohibited, a small number of vehicles - often only one vehicle - usually is parked along the street, specifically in front of two shops located along that stretch. It only takes one such parked vehicle to create a bottleneck and transform the three-lane artery into a two-lane one, and consequently eliminate one third of the street‘s traffic handling capacity.

This example of a traffic violation results in an extremely inefficient use of the street. Interestingly enough, during my many years of driving through this street, I have not even once noticed any of those parked cars being ticketed. There does not seem to be enough of a capacity or will to address such an apparently simple problem. Similar observations may be made throughout Amman. If those responsible for managing Amman’s traffic are not capable or willing to prevent a few cars from parking illegally along a single street, one wonders if they would be in a position to enforce a sophisticated transportation strategy that most probably will have to include dedicated bus lanes, neighborhood parking permits, and congestion pricing.

Managing transportation in Amman is as much a behavioral issue as it is a technical one. If the behavioral components of transportation management in the city are not seriously addressed then even the most ingenious of technical solutions will be a waste of time, energy, and money.

Mohammad al-Asad

September 6, 2007