Population control is a major challenge in our beloved homeland whether it is about homo sapiens or about motor cycles. Somehow, there are some interlinkages in unbridled population growth and production of motorcycles, lately. In Pakistan, the mantra of population planning is enchanted since 1950s, but in case of traffic control of motorcycles, the planning is not even in sight. It is becoming more and more alarming, considering that 7500 motor cycles are added in traffic of Pakistan on daily basis according to some estimates. Number of children landing in Pakistan is in millions and no alarm is raised to manage it, therefore additional number of motorcycles coming on road is also going unnoticed. Ironically, it is presented as a sign of growing economy without paying much attention to glaring consequences of this unplanned production of motorcycles.
One of the major consequences of increased motorcycles population in urban areas is traffic congestion. With no dedicated motorcycle lanes in urban centers, except on few roads in Lahore, zig zag movements of motorcycles due to their easier manoeuvrability, other four-wheel vehicles have to slow down. It increases the number of vehicles on the road to cover the same distance for longer period of time and exhausting more pollutants into air adding further to the environmental degradation. It also increases cost of mobility due to higher consumption of fuel by all commuters. According to a seminal study conducted in Lahore in collaboration with Dr. Muhammad Hassan from Department of Economics of Lahore University of Management and Sciences, in 2018, annual cost of congestion only in Lahore is approximately 94 billion Rupees. With more vehicles on the roads and cost of fuel adjustment, it can be safely suggested that it has surpassed 100 billion Rupees by now. Although, only motorcycles are not the sole reason for this exorbitant cost of congestion but disproportionate number of motorcycles in the mixture of types of vehicles, it is one of the major contributing factors.
Only in the Punjab, motorcycles are 85% of the total registered vehicles. With no periodic fitness tests of these motorcycles and levying one-time token tax by the Excise and Taxation departments, there is no mechanism to take any unfit motorcycles out of road through any fitness regulation regime. In Lahore, from where more data is available for any assessment, on average almost 60 motorcycles are stolen every day. This shows that there is an active demand of stolen motorcycles or their parts in the country and supply is facilitated by the motorcycles’ thieves. It is quite possible that many a motorcycle would also be riding on the road with fake number plates as sheer number of motorcycles makes it difficult for any kind of active enforcement. With such a whooping number of motorcycles, fuel consumption by only this motor vehicle is almost 40% of the total fuel being consumed in the country.
There are other factors for easy and affordable supply of motorcycles. A new Pakistani made motorcycle can be purchased at Rupees 35000 per motorbike while on periodic instalments of payment, it is even a more attractive deal. This makes it a vehicle of choice for the poor and lower middle-income families. With poor enforcement by traffic police, number of persons on a motorcycle can go up to five including three children or young men. The roads in Pakistan have seen further innovations such as, Ching Chi, motorcycle rickshaw and goods carrying motorcycles with locally modified trollies. It is a common sight that a family of four commonly uses one motorcycle and even for intercity commute. What else could be a cheaper option than this for a poor person in an era of price hike and rising inflation?
Other side of the story is dearth of affordable and reliable provision of public transport system. With increasing population and unplanned expansion of suburbs around the urban centres, it has become increasingly difficult for transportation departments and urban planners to satisfy the demand of public transport. It is not an excuse for anyone in authority to present, as all powerful public servants should have done it on regular basis. Inordinate Delays in development of urban mass transit systems have created a gap in the urban mobility market which was bound to be filled by mushrooming of motorcycles. We have developed capacity to manufacture local motorcycles but it does not mean that we keep on producing it at every cost in the name of protecting the local business and industry of one commodity. It is not wise to think that what can be done, must be done.
It is about time to regulate and control production and supply of motorcycles plying on major roads of urban centres. There is need to adapt multiple strategies to control traffic vehicle mix on main highways of the provinces, just like on motorways. In city centres, also there is need to impose traffic restrictions on motorcycles for specific hours of the day and only in those areas where dedicated parking is available. It will free up many a footpaths and roads already being used as parking places. Regulation of protective gear like crash helmets will be mandatory to prevent loss of life and to improve public safety. Most of the accidents in urban centres involve motorcycles and young bike riders. If dedicated lanes are provided for motorcycles, there should be a zero tolerance for violators and strict licensing regime ought to be followed which is already available. High fines and enhanced public safety measures with restriction of only two persons on a bike will diminish the attraction of this vehicle of choice. However, all cannot be achieved through enforcement and policing.
Globally, governments have provided better and safer alternates to their people. Local motorcycle industry can be incentivised to develop safer automobiles and cars while capping the motorcycle production. Even in developing economies, majority of the people do not prefer motorcycles over well- managed, safe and affordable public transport systems. It is not only environment friendly, but also a safe mode of travel; freeing up more time for commuters to spend at their leisure. It is not difficult to find ways to turn challenges into opportunities, if there is a will.
This op-ed was published in Daily The Nation on June 9, 2021 https://nation.com.pk/09-Jun-2021/bane-of-traffic-motorcycles