Blocking our Way from Prosperity: The Costs of Road Mismanagement

Even before there were containers or the diversions for the MetroBus, Islamabad’s roads were still extensively blocked. At over 250 locations to be precise as reported in Dawn and Tribune a year ago. This added to misery of commuters, people sometimes spending hours to traverse distances of minutes. Those coming from Rawalpindi, DHA or Bahria spoke of travel times comparable to those coming from Murree or Abbottabad.

To be fair, not all traffic delays can be attributed to the checkpoints. Poor traffic engineering and even worse traffic management have to held accountable. In a city with 1-2 million population, that occupies the geographical area of Karachi or Lahore, and has 4 lane throughfares, there should NEVER be traffic jams. And yet poor management of roads makes Islamabad’s Jinnah Avenue and Faisal Avenues seem like Karachi’s backstreets. Poorly placed U-turns and crossover points, absence of thought-through pedestrian crossings and randomly placed speed breakers add adventure to what would otherwise be a boring daily commute.

Road checkpoints and traffic mismanagement costs the nation around 4-5 billion rupees (or 2-3% of the GDP) and waste time equal to 1350 lives each year. Is the cost justified.

But all that is fine, why should we care beyond the fact these discomfort a few car owners. Actually, there is more. Just suppose that these check points slow everyone down daily by one minute and that Islamabad was a city of 1 million people and has 200,000 cars or buses that transport 400,000 commuters daily (it has more of each). The cost of petrol lost alone would be rupees 800 million a year. Add to that a minimum of Rs 300 million in lost wages (I assume that the average monthly income of all commuters is around 30,000 a month. Its not, some have less and some have more, this is probably a low estimate than a high one). So every minute that commuters lose in a city of million cost the nation of Rupees 1.1 billion. Now approximately 50 million people live in large cities in Pakistan and they are all subject to checkpoints. This means that the nation loses around Rupees 55 million a year for every minute that these checkpoints add to the travel of commuters. Realistically most of us lose more than a minute a day. Its closer to 10 minute. One can do the math. Is the cost of checkpoints (or road mismanagement) justifiable if it comes to 2-3% of the GDP.

The argument for the checkpoints is that they are meant to save lives by preventing terrorists. This is a laudable goal, if this is actually what happens. But lets also look at what is actually saved or lost. losing a minute a day by 300,000 people adds upto 171 years worth of time lost – equal to just under 3 Pakistani lifespans. For Pakistan the figure is closer to 134 lifespans for every minute lost or 1340 for the 10 minute delay that we assumed above. The question is: are we saving 1300 lives a year at these checkpoints.

The answer to these questions are not known because we have never been informed how many terrorists were apprehended at these checkpoints. On occasion, we have been told that checkpoints have helped catch thieves, but I wonder if the stolen goods recovered as result are worth the 100s of billions of rupees that we lose doing so.

This is not a vexing problem. Decide why you want checkpoints and understand their implications. Most of all share with the public what are reasons and implications are. And then ask the public if they want to put up with these. Yes or no, the choice should be that of the public and it should be informed with knowledge.

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