Joined-Up Thinking Needed

Jordan needs to adopt a more holistic approach to mobility if it wants to successfully tackle its transport challenges.

By Hazem Zureiqat

Up until it was granted the authority to plan and regulate public transport within its boundaries in 2007, GAM would often respond to mounting traffic congestion on a major intersection in Amman by building a piece of infrastructure—be it a roundabout, an underpass, an overpass, or a combination of all three. At that time, infrastructure solutions—and also those related to traffic lights—were the only ones available in GAM’s toolbox. Getting more cars through the intersection was the primary concern, with little consideration for the situation beyond the intersection and beyond the passenger car. Introducing a rapid transit line, for example, had never been an option because GAM had no jurisdiction over public transport at that time.

These infrastructure solutions have proven time and time again to be ineffective and short-sighted. As the saying goes: “If you build it, they will come.”

Even after the infrastructure was built and a plan set on how traffic would circulate, the traffic police, which does not fall under GAM’s authority, could take action on its own and close off a roundabout or redirect traffic.

On major highways in and out of Amman, a similar situation still exists. The Ministry of Public Works and Housing carries out road construction and maintenance works to make sure more cars can travel efficiently on these highways. Public transport isn’t part of the equation, because, again, that ministry has no authority in that regard. Furthermore, municipalities that plan the various land uses to which people travel have little to no say.

This institutional separation is not a bad thing in and of itself, and what is missing is not simply a lack of coordination among these institutions (although enhancing that coordination is important and very much needed). In Jordan’s case, what this situation reflects is a lack of understanding and appreciation of the core issues at hand: mobility—the ability of people and goods to move freely and efficiently from one place to another and accessibility-the ability to reach economic, social, and other activities.

These definitions of mobility and accessibility only works in practice if the main objective of a city’s transportation system is to facilitate the movement of people and goods—not cars, buses, or trucks. Also, it must be understood that demand for any transportation system is derived from other activities. People don’t move around for the sake of doing so, rather they move to access jobs, educational opportunities, social and recreational events, and other activities.

This may seem like a basic concept, but understanding it and ensuring that it’s part of the decision making process can have a profound impact on the way we get things done.

When we think of mobility, we no longer see building new road infrastructure as the only way out of a traffic jam. Instead, we have access to a basket of solutions that may also include enhanced public transportation and better sidewalks for pedestrians. It could even mean just tinkering with traffic light timings, or enacting policies to better regulate parking.

When we think of mobility and accessibility as a pillar of economic growth, we no longer view traffic jams in the context of getting more cars through a stretch of road or an intersection. We consider the whole system of land uses and economic activities that people want to access. A public authority cannot effectively solve a problem at an intersection if it is not aware of a new mall that was just licensed at that corner, for example.

As I mentioned earlier, achieving this paradigm shift isn’t simply a matter of better coordination between multiple institutions. It requires moving away from the silo mentality that dominates the way we deal with transport, and which is pervasive in our ministries and public institutions. This mentality could be traced back to the higher education system, which puts more emphasis on depth within disciplines such as engineering and applied sciences than the breadth needed to practice urban and transportation planning. Understanding mobility and accessibility require thinking not only about engineering solutions, but also about people, policies, and physical planning.

As one of my university instructors put it: It’s not about building something the right way; it’s about building the right thing the right way.

Understanding the very core of the problem is the first step towards finding a sustainable solution. This understanding can only be achieved with the right institutional framework, a more multi-disciplinary higher education curriculum, and, above all, a strong political will that can piece together all the elements to create a balanced, multimodal, and sustainable transportation system.