Urban Solutions: Easier Said than Done
Urban Crossroads #30

How do we solve problems relating to traffic congestion, inadequate pedestrian zones, chaotic parking patterns, and a lack of separation between pedestrian and vehicular movement? All are problems that affect numerous districts in Amman such as that of Sweifieh.

Many of us are under the impression that these problems are easy to address. It is common to hear reactions to such problems begin with the phrase "if I was in charge, I simply would ...." Unfortunately, the situation is not that simple. Take the example of what initially appears as a simple task such as regulating parking along a congested commercial street. A single car parked in the wrong location often can bring havoc to traffic. A list of potential solutions for this problem include completely prohibiting parking along the street, allowing parking during certain times of the day / week, limiting parking to certain parts of the street, placing parking meters, or prohibiting parking for the general public, and only allowing it for residents living along the street through special parking permits.

Addressing such a problem begins with diagnosis. One would need to observe parking patterns along that street at different times of the year, different days of the week, and different hours of the day. From these observations, one would identify causes and symptoms of the problem. The diagnosis often is the easiest part of the problem-solving process. It does require time, dedication, and diligence, as well as expertise and knowledge of the setting in which one is dealing. However, it is a clearly-defined process that almost completely depends on the competence of the people carrying it out.

Putting forward solutions is the next step in the problem-solving process. It is a more involved and complex step than that of diagnosis. One needs to take into consideration the stakeholders who will be affected by the proposed solutions. In the case of regulating parking along a busy commercial street, important stakeholders include the owners of the shops located along the street. These will resist any attempt at limiting the freedom of their customers to park immediately next to their shops. In Amman, shop owners often illegally take over parts of the street in front of their shops and treat them as private zones reserved for the vehicles of their customers. They will be extremely unhappy if a no parking ban were implemented in front of their shops. Shoppers with vehicles in Amman are another - though less clearly defined - group of stakeholders. These also will resist attempts at limiting what they believe is a God-given right to park wherever they wish.

Stakeholders who rightly or wrongly feel they have something to loose from a certain change will fiercely resist that change. Therefore, if parking regulations are put in place for a given location, the affected stakeholders often will try to subvert these regulations. This resistance unfortunately often is short-sighted and purely self-serving. Organizing parking along crowded commercial streets in fact may very well be to the benefit of shop owners there. The resulting freer flow of traffic will encourage people who usually avoid such streets to frequent them. The fact that people will have to do a bit more walking to the shops they frequent will enliven pedestrian life along the street, which in turn will stimulate business activity there.

The public interest always should take precedence over private gain and the pressures of narrowly defined interest groups. Still, it always is preferable to engage the various stakeholders affected by a given regulation through explaining to them the problems and suggested solutions. In fact, many of them usually are brought along to the side of the proposed regulations once they understand the benefits of such regulations, and feel they are involved and consulted in the process of making them.

Various solutions may be put forward to the parking problems mentioned above such as prohibiting or regulating parking through time and place-related restrictions, parking meters, or special permits. Always, alternative parking arrangements also need to be proposed. These might include identifying nearby locations for off-street parking in open lots or parking tructures, or even developing a high-quality public transportation system that serves the area. Once solutions are developed into regulations, the challenge is that of implementation. A number of questions need to be raised here. These relate to whether the implementing authorities have the will or ability to implement those regulations. Does the implementing authority support the solutions put forward at the level of both the inspectors on the streets as well as their supervisors in the offices at headquarters. Does the implementing authority have enough staff members to implement the regulations? Do those staff members have the necessary levels of commitment, competence, and integrity to effectively implement those regulations? If the answer is no to any of those questions, the proposed solutions simply will fail. Once it becomes apparent that the regulations will not be implemented effectively, the various stakeholders such as shop owners and shoppers with vehicles will ignore them.

A regulation that is not implemented is worse than having no regulation at all. We clearly have too many regulations that regularly are violated. Without exception, every time I step outside my home I come across vehicles parked where they shouldn't be, drivers driving recklessly, vehicles blowing clouds of black smoke in one's face, ... and the list goes on. In every instance, clear regulations intended to serve the public good are violated. There is a critical mass of people who have no qualms about ignoring such regulations. Moreover, the implementing authorities seem unable or unwilling to make the necessary efforts to implement these regulations.

If the apparently simple task of regulating parking along a commercial street may very well face numerous difficult challenges, then more extensive urban interventions, such as converting a street accommodating vehicular traffic into a pedestrian zone or putting in place more strict land-use regulations in a given district, will be far more complex and challenging undertakings. In spite of this rather pessimistic assessment, I will attempt in my next article to suggest solutions for the urban chaos that prevails in an area such as Sweifieh.

Mohammad al-Asad

January 6, 2005