For most of our lives we had been accustomed to the car as the vehicle of choice to get from point A to B. It also has attached social implications; in Ethiopia, a car is a non-depreciating asset that gives status, it is an enclosure of security from the unsafe streets and it is a cabin of trust to which only those we are warm towards are admitted. In addition, city planning and transport infrastructure favor the car as the transportation means of choice. But, why? Why did the car replace the horse, or the foot for that matter, in our cities even back when our cities were much, much smaller? Both our cars and our car-centric city planning, like most African countries, came from European influences.
So when did Europe decide cars are the future? Before the Second World War, European streets were shared spaces between pedestrians, cycles, horse carriages and some motor vehicles. Post World War II, however, Europe was dilapidated and poor. The US then came along with revival funds; some of these funds were to be recycled to support the American car manufacturing industry by selling cars to Europe. So the Americans offered Europe many cars and plans for cities and roads designed around the purpose of accommodating cars. Precarious economic situations meant Europe couldn’t pursue their own ideas of city planning.
Thus, activities of people and cities became car-dependent, i.e., the car became the primary mode of transport. As a transport mode, the private car provides the owner with flexibility, comfort, uncontested right to the road space and speed albeit subject to traffic conditions.
Eventually, however, citizens began to see that car dependency and car-centric street designs come with associated costs and began to protest. Starting from the iconic Dutch protests of 1970s against car dominated transportation to more recent developments in cities like Copenhagen and Barcelona to restrict cars and promote walking and cycling, this constant opposition to cars goes on – continually transforming the design culture and politics around cars.
This piece means to ask if society has sacrificed a lot for the sake of cars; it focuses on the age-old argument against cars and frames it in economic terms. In doing so, it seeks to underline the importance of thinking away from business as usual – i.e., car-centric policies and decisions. The piece also evokes the argument for non-motorized transportation as a possible urban transportation solution that minimizes the costs of car dependency.
The first category of car-dependency costs is congestion costs. In very simple terms, congestion happens when corridors created for traffic flow are not able to accommodate the existing traffic. Cars as vehicles are not spatially economical; they carry less people per capita than, public transport, causing roads to fill up very fast.
Furthermore, in Addis Ababa, the road network is small for the number of cars it hosts; the network also has low connectivity, i.e., not many alternative routes between origin and destination. Hence, many of the cars have to, at some point, take some important main corridors regardless their destination. This inexorably leads to congestion.
Congestion is costly because it creates delays which means lost time of productivity; it also contributes heavily to fuel wastage by cars. To put things into perspective, a study found that delays at intersection approaches in Addis cost an average of 39.6 million birr per approach per year.
Congestion also costs us in valuable urban space. Imagine a venue that hosts a certain activity; it could be a concert hall, a park or even a small café. If more people than a venue can accommodate show up, they are kindly told to turn back as the venue is full. The same is not true of cars, however; with the ever increasing arrival of cars on the road, no car is told to ‘go back’. Instead we opt to increase the number and size of the venues – roads, taking away from valuable urban space. It is important to know that this approach to mobility is not sustainable; what we want is to reduce number of cars and save valuable urban space, not the opposite.
In exemplary recognition of the above fact, different places in the world implement strict methods to control the number of cars that are out in the streets. The first is legal and economic control of how many cars can be bought per annum; Singapore is a shining example here. The second is fostering and facilitating a shift to non-motorized modes; The Netherlands, where good infrastructure promotes walking and cycling while costs of car ownership are high, is a good example here.
The second category of car-dependency costs is accidents. The cost of accidents is in terms of losing human life, property damage and social costs associated with losses due to the accidents. The actual numbers show the immensity of traffic accident costs. An assessment of the cost of traffic accidents in nine high-income countries in 2016 shows that traffic accidents eat up from 1.5 percent (Germany) to six percent (US) of the national GDP. In Ethiopia, a study has estimated the cost of motor vehicle crashes to be 31 million birr in 2010 alone. Another 2019 study estimated that Addis Ababa City is bound to lose 600 million birr in the five years to come due to traffic accidents.
But what does this have to do with cars in particular? Well, an important variable to consider is exposure – the number of possible interactions between vehicles and road users; this is directly related to probability of an accident involving a vehicle. Presence of cars on the streets is, especially for pedestrians and cyclists, the presence of dangerously large and speedy objects, the exposure to which means probability of an accident. Pedestrians and cyclists that belong to the young and the elderly, have been shown to be the most vulnerable and hence the ones that are paying the ultimate price for car dependency instead of the car dependents.
In this regard, by shifting to non-motorized transport coupled with supporting legal framework to penalize traffic law infringements we can decrease exposure to cars and increase walking and cycling. This has been shown to influence the behavior of remaining motorists on the road, thereby significantly decreasing the total crash rates.
Health is the third category where dependency on cars costs us a great deal. First, reduced physical activity due to driving can lead to obesity and heart conditions. We can see the significance of the health costs by looking at the health benefits of those who choose not to drive. A 2015 study in The Netherlands concluded that the health benefits of cycling prevent 6,500 deaths per annum; the monetary value of these prevented deaths translates to a whopping 19 billion euros or three percent of the Dutch GDP. All of the above savings are what would have been the costs of car dependency.
The health costs of reliance on cars also extend to the cleanliness of the living environment. Cars are one of the major emitters of noise and carbon-based compounds, which beyond certain thresholds have adverse effects on human health. In a study conducted in the UK, the combined cost of the above types of emissions can be as large as 19.3 Billion GBP.
As for Ethiopia, granted we do not have that many cars as the developed world. Comprehensive studies on health costs of cars are also lacking. However, vehicle ownership is increasing at a staggering rate and the health arguments against cars are universal. Hence, it is but a matter of time before cars pose the same threat level to Ethiopia as they do now to, say, Beijing. Now is indeed a good chance to think about air pollution policies that make drivers pay for the privilege of driving.
The use of non-motorized modes can be a worthy solution in this regard. Here, it is important noting that walking and cycling come with the risk of longer exposure in environments with polluted air; this is something relevant to a city like Addis Ababa. However, on average and considering the population as a whole, it is proven that the health benefits of walking and cycling are much larger than the risks posed by pollution exposure.
The story goes on to a fourth category, this time it is fuel imports. Many nations spend a great deal to import fuel. Car dependency costs oil importer countries a great deal of money. This is exacerbated in populous countries with a primarily road-based economy. In 2016, fuel imports reached 10.9% of Ethiopia’s USD 15.2 billion worth total imports. It is not clear how much of this goes into consumption by private cars. Nonetheless, it is vital for the average citizen to make the connection between the individual choice to be car-reliant and the aggregate effect of such individual choices on the national economy.
A final but equally interesting category is of costs that are unquantifiable or rather are not easy to quantify. As cars need roads to host them, road construction becomes an enduring process in the urban environment. The damage to cityscape, severance of communities and negative effects to biodiversity are some of the consequences of road construction that prove quite difficult to quantify in monetary terms but are evident.
The costs of reliance on cars are by no means negligible. Hence, policy makers and society at large must come together to use a collection of methods to minimize these costs. As indicated, a shift to non-motorized transport is one solution. To realize such a shift in Ethiopia, there are certain indispensable steps to be taken; the major ones are: city planning and design around non-motorized transportation, the planning of how to incorporate the new design concepts into the existing land-use and transport network and the justification of such moves as beneficial investment of tax-payer money.
To undergo the above steps, three actors must share responsibility and execute their share, all the while showing coordination and synchronicity. First, academics and practitioners must work on contextual designs fit for Ethiopian cities that culminate in alternatives that policy makers can comfortably sign on. Second, relevant City and Federal authorities are responsible for allocation of the necessary funds for research, design and implementation; coordination between government departments relevant to urban transportation policy making and implementation is also vital particularly in Addis. Educating the society of the link between individual choices on car ownership and the economic implications is a combined responsibility of both the first and second actors.
The actor that completes the trifecta is the citizen. In the end, the city belongs to the residents who live in it. This makes the citizen vital in areas of: giving inputs to aid research and design, as well as ownership and ultimate responsibility to protect and take care of infrastructure built using tax payer money.
This three-actor coalition must realize the shift away from cars; this is neither a move to satisfy the cycling hippies nor another “imported idea” to experiment with in Ethiopia. It is rather a fundamental necessity for well-being in the urban environment.
Ed.’s Note: Mesay Shemsu is a graduate of the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, in the field of Transport Infrastructure and Logistics. He currently works at the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology and enjoys writing to inform the public about urban transportation and related issues. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected] and @ShemsuMesay on Twitter.
Contributed by Mesay Shemsu