Sharing the Road
Urban Crossroads #64

                                  The motor vehicle dominates Amman's transportation network. (Siba al-Shouli)

                                The motor vehicle dominates Amman's transportation network. (Siba al-Shouli)

If left to its own devices, urban transportation easily can degenerate into a zero-sum game. It is an example of a struggle over limited resources. The resources are the city's transportation arteries, primarily streets and also sidewalks. The people who use those arteries to get from one point to the other, i.e. pedestrians, cyclists, as well as the drivers and passengers of vehicles, compete over using those transportation arteries. A city can only have so many streets and sidewalks, but the numbers of people and vehicles using these arteries in most cases are constantly increasing.

If the situation is left unmanaged, the rule of the jungle will prevail, and the most numerous and most aggressive will overtake those arteries. In Amman, the prize goes to the motor vehicle, primarily the private automobile, the taxi, and the infamous mid-size coaster bus zooming aggressively through the city. Pedestrians and also the larger public-transportation buses, however, are relegated to second-degree status in their ability to freely and comfortably move through the city's network of arteries. There are cases where pedestrians end up forcing their control over the road. A fascinating and often amusing example of that is the Dead Sea Road in the Jordan Valley on Fridays and holidays during the winter months.

This competition over resources often gets nasty. I recently read an interesting article about such competition in New York City. Driving in New York's central parts is a highly unpleasant experience that is marked by tension between drivers on the one hand, and between drivers and pedestrians on the other. As if this is not enough, cyclists now are further complicating this situation. Ideally, incorporating cycling as a system of transportation in the city is an admirable task, but this partly involves creating bike paths that are dedicated to bicycle movement. If these are not provided, then cyclists (assuming they exist) simply will compete with other users over the city's transportation network. This is what is happening in New York. Ironically, the retrofitting of sidewalks there to make them handicapped-accessible through constructing ramps at their corners has allowed cyclists to comfortably get on and off the sidewalk. Cyclists consequently are becoming a nuisance and even a danger to both pedestrians and drivers as they zoom off and on sidewalks and streets. What under other circumstances would have been a welcome development here has developed into a nightmare scenario. The authorities consequently have devised a plan to construct 320 kilometres of bicycle paths, i.e. expanding a neglected component of the city's transportation network.

How does one manage urban transportation with all its complexities? The solution is in resource allocation. This involves a very carefully thought-out management plan of the existing transportation network that organises who uses the network and when they use it. One example of this is incorporating a system of time-zoning rather than relying exclusively on space-zoning. Accordingly, a street does not have to be dedicated to the use of motor vehicles around the clock, as space-zoning would have it. Lanes in a street may be dedicated to public-transportation buses during rush hours. Parking along the street may be allowed later in the day, after traffic has calmed down and most businesses have closed. A street may be reserved for pedestrian use during evenings, weekends, and holidays in the warm months. And whole stretches of street even may be devoted to cyclists during mornings on weekends and holidays. The nature of the use of the street consequently changes according to the time of day or time of year.

Applying such transport-related time-zoning admittedly is difficult and complex to accomplish. Simple space-zoning always is easier. Accordingly, a street always would be devoted to motor vehicles, and neither users nor the relevant authorities need to worry about the complexities of keeping track of when one of its lanes is restricted to buses, when parking is allowed, or when the street is closed to traffic and only open to pedestrians and cyclists. It also requires much more efficient and sophisticated traffic-law enforcement strategies than does space-zoning. The total dependence on space-zoning, however, is a luxury we no longer can afford. There are too few streets but too many people wanting and needing to use them. Users have to learn to share the road, and hopefully do so in a civilised manner. Some shy examples of time-zoning do exist in Amman, but they are too few and far in between to begin to make any significant impact on the patterns of movement in the city.

In addition to time-zoning, strategies that limit vehicular access to parts of the city, i.e. demand management strategies, should be considered. The experience of London is worth examining, where during the last year-and-a-half private automobiles have been required to pay a special tax if they enter into the city's central area, identified as its "congestion zone". The aim of the tax is to reduce congestion by about 15 per cent, and it also raises £130 million (about JD180 million) a year in city revenues. Singapore has been successfully using a variant of such a system since the 1970s. One also may consider the experience of Copenhagen, which was one of the first cities to extensively limit the parking of vehicles in the inner city, thus encouraging people to walk, cycle or use public transportation rather than private vehicles when going there.

As a child growing up in Amman, I remember how the city's residents, whether pedestrians, drivers, or cyclists (it seemed to me that every child then had a bike, but this might a case of wishful reminiscence) shared the city's streets. It was a relatively small city and there was less competition over its transportation resources. There also was a bigger chance of coming across someone you know in the street, which placed some pressure on people to act rather courteously towards each other. As Amman has grown into a metropolitan centre, it has become too large and impersonal to accommodate such patterns of social behaviour. As for dealing with its increasing traffic congestion problems, this primarily has consisted of laying out new streets, widening existing ones, and creating tunnels and overpasses at their intersections. We are painfully discovering that there are limits to such an approach, and the expanded street network simply attracts more traffic, thus further compounding traffic congestion problems in the long run. When it comes to automobile movement, the increase in the supply of roads almost always is unable to keep up with the increasing demand on them.

The nature of a city's transportation network is intimately connected to the quality of life in it. Amman is facing some grave challenges relating to the functionality of this network. As these challenges are being addressed, we should keep in mind that business as usual for urban transportation simply is not working. The streets of Amman are a limited resource, and there is a need to maximise the benefit that may be obtained from them. This requires developing a new mindset that encourages devising creative and bold solutions for getting people from one place to the other in the city.

Mohammad al-Asad

January 4, 2006