"The Neglected Epidemic"

At the beginning of April, the US Department of Transportation estimated that traffic fatalities in the United States declined to the lowest rate (per vehicle miles traveled) since 1949. While it’s somewhat disturbing that the loss of 32,788 lives can be reported as good news, cars are indeed getting safer in the developed world. A number of factors, including increases in the prevalence of air bags, drunk driving enforcement, and seat belt usage, help explain this downward trend.

Unfortunately, traffic fatalities are skyrocketing in lower income countries (see this figure). An article from the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies lists four factors contributing to such high injury and fatality rates in lower income countries:

  • The growing number of cars – In Tanzania, car buyers can order used vehicles from Japan online from sites like Autorec; the purchased vehicle will arrive at the Dar es Salaam Harbor a few months later. Strict emissions and safety standards in Japan create disincentives to driving older vehicles, so there is an abundant supply of affordable used vehicles that can be shipped around the world.
  • The high number of passengers per vehicle, especially in buses and minibuses
  • Poor enforcement of safety regulations – Widespread corruption means that it is cheaper for drivers and owners to pay a bribe for traffic or maintenance violations than to obey the law.
  • Inadequate health care systems.

The authors of this article go on to explain how socioeconomic status influences the breakdown of traffic injuries:

The choice of mode of transport in developing countries is often influenced by socioeconomic factors, especially income. In Kenya, for example, 27% of commuters who have no formal education were found to travel on foot, 55% usually used buses or minibuses, and 9% used private cars. By contrast, 81% of people with secondary level education or above usually travelled in private cars; 19% travelled by bus, and none walked. People with little formal education earn low incomes. For them, the affordable means of transport are walking, travelling by bus or truck, or cycling—all of which expose them to high risks for road traffic injuries.
People in developing countries are frequently aware of these risks. A regular commuter on the buses in Lagos, Nigeria—which are referred to locally as danfos, “flying coffins,” or molue, “moving morgues”—said, “Many of us know most of the buses are death traps but since we can’t afford the expensive taxi fares, we have no choice but to use the buses.”…
The injury profile for road traffic crashes in developing countries differs in important ways from the profile seen in developed countries, and it can provide guidance for making policies to improve prevention and control. Protection is needed for three main vulnerable groups—pedestrians, who in urban areas constitute up to 70% of the fatalities; passengers com­muting on buses, trucks and minibuses, who constitute the next largest population group affected; and cyclists.

Traffic fatalities are a leading cause of death in South Africa, as Mobility Magazine reports:

In the 2007/2008 research year, between 14-18 000 people were killed on the roads in South Africa (18 487 were murdered in that same time period). There are approximately 800 000 crashes per year — we’re the third worst in the world per capita. Road deaths are the second highest cause of accidental death in the 0-18 age group, and 22 people become permanently disabled every day. Our driving behaviour costs the country about R47 billion a year.

The Mobility article goes on to cite the recommendations of Dr. Marianne Vanderschuren from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies. The solution to road crashes is a combination of “education, enforcement, engineering, environment, encouraging innovation, and evaluation.”

In Tanzania, there were 10,000 traffic fatalities in 2002, amounting to 3.0 deaths per 10,000 people. In that same year, there were only 140 registered vehicles per 10,000 people. For every 10,000 people in the United States, in comparison, there are about 8,000 registered vehicles but only 1.1 traffic fatalities. In other words, per capita, the United States has 60 times the number of vehicles that Tanzania does and only 1/3 of the traffic fatalities.

A number of groups are trying to address this neglected epidemic. Tanzania’s transport regulator (SUMATRA), Association of Passenger Advocates (CHAKUA), Public Cyclists of Dar es Salaam (UWABA), Amend, and other groups joined together to sponsor Tanzania’s participation in the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.

La Cinta Costera – The Coastal Beltway

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(English translation below)

Una de las campañas primeras de La Alianza Pro Ciudad fue enfocada en la construcción de la Cinta Costera de la Ciudad de Panamá. La organización pidió al Ministerio de Obras Públicas construya un parque que transforme positivamente la ciudad en lugar de un proyecto masivo de tráfico. La primera fase, que reclamó 25 hectares de la Bahía de Panamá entre Punta Paitilla y Casco Viejo, completieron en el 2009 por $ 189 millones. Para aliviar la congestión del tráfico crónica (ay, demanda inducida), la Avenida Balboa se convirtió en el uso de una via, con tres carriles locales y tres carriles expresos. Cuatro carriles expresos en la dirección opuesta añadieron, en dirección noreste hacia el Corredor Sur. Casi veinte y cinco por ciento de los terrenos ganados del mar se dedicó a las áreas recreativas y jardines, pero los grupos ambientales, incluyendo La Alianza Pro Ciudad clamaban por más:

Miembros de Alianza Pro Ciudad Raisa Banfield y Álvaro Uribe habría dicho que el plan original era tener un parque costero con un vial, no un camino mejorado con pequeños trozos de espacio verde.

Cuando yo andaba en la Cinta Costera, no parecía un parque costero exitoso. La pista de jogging, canchas de baloncesto, ciclovias y quioscos estaban decididamente infrautilizados. Restricciones de la conducta y la alta cantidad de carriles de coches de alta velocidad son dos factores que conducen a esta falta de popularidad. Aunque seis puentes peatonales fueron construidos como parte del proyecto, sólo van super cuatro de los diez carriles, desde la acera frente al mar hacia las estacionimientos en el centro del proyecto. Los peatones tienen que correr a traves de seis carriles de tráfico para llegar al resto de la ciudad desde el fin de los pasos superiores.

A pesar de estas deficiencias, la Cinta Costera ha ofrecido algunos beneficios a la ciudad. Los valores de propiedad en las cercanías se han subido, y la ciudad se siente menos económicamente estratificado con un fuerte vínculo físico entre Punta Paitilla y Casco Viejo. La Cinta Costera ha servido como espacio público necesario para varios desfiles y manifestaciones, incluyendo los más recientes contra los cambios propuestos al código de minería del país (fotos aquí).


One of the formative campaigns of Alianza Pro Ciudad centered on the construction Panama City’s Coastal Beltway, La Cinta Costera. The organization pressured the Public Works Ministry to turn a traffic project into a more broadly urbanist one that transformed Panama City’s waterfront. The first phase, which reclaimed 25 hectares from the Bay of Panama between Punta Paitilla and Casco Viejo, was completed in 2009 at a cost of $189 million. In an attempt to alleviate chronic traffic congestion (oh, induced demand), the existing Avenida Balboa was converted to one-way use, with three local lanes and three express through-lanes. Four express lanes in the opposite direction were added on the landfill, heading northeast to the beginning of the Corredor Sur. Nearly one quarter of the reclaimed land was devoted to recreational and landscaped areas, but environmental groups including Alianza Pro Ciudad clamored for more:

Members of Alianza Pro Ciudad, Raisa Banfield and Alvaro Uribe are quoted as saying that the original plan was to have a coastal park with an improved road, not an improved roadway with little bits of green space.

In the times I walked and rode along the Cinta Costera, it did not seem like a successful coastal park. The jogging path, basketball courts, bike lanes, and gazebos were decidedly underutilized. Behavioral restrictions (e.g. an abundance of signs reading “Keep off the grass”) and multiple lanes of speeding cars are two factors leading to this lack of popularity. Though six pedestrian overpasses were constructed as part of the project, they only run across four of the ten lanes, from the waterfront footpath to the parking lots in the middle of the project; pedestrians still need to weave their way through six lanes of traffic to get from the end of the overpasses to the rest of the city.

Despite these shortcomings, the Cinta Costera has offered some benefits to the city. Property values in the vicinity have jumped, and the city feels less socioeconomically stratified with such a strong physical link between the ritzy Punta Paitilla and the less ritzy Casco Viejo. The Cinta Costera has served as much needed public space for various parades and protests, including the recent ones against proposed changes to the country’s mining code (great pictures here).

The video below includes some renderings of the project (and Enya’s Caribbean Blue – I can offer no explanation for this music decision, especially since the project is along the Pacific, not Caribbean, coast). Translation of the first part of the text: “New Balboa Avenue – Park with Sporting, Cultural, and Recreational Areas – An End to Traffic Jams – The Most Well-known Image of Panama is About to Change…For the Better.” There’s a great clip of an animated school bus going by some of the new park facilities at 1:00, going to show how integral a part of Panama City the diablos rojos are.

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The Swing Bridge

Standing on the Swing Bridge

Standing on the Swing Bridge

The Swing Bridge, over the mouth of Haulover Creek in Belize City, is an icon of the country. The back of Belize’s $50 bill even features the small span. It was constructed in Liverpool, opened in 1923, and is the only bridge in the world that still regularly rotates open from a central base. Every morning and evening, workers manually swing it open using rods inserted to the underlying circular track so that taller boats can pass up and down the Creek. The salty air has caused some corrosion, and because it was designed so long ago, today’s heavy buses and trucks are not allowed to cross it.

Since Belize City only has three bridges over Haulover Creek (the other two are the Belcan and the Belchina), unexpected problems on any one of the bridges can cause significant traffic congestion to propagate throughout the city. An article in the Amandala newspaper describes the delays from recent unannounced construction:

The closure of the Belcan caused a traffic bottleneck on Cemetery Road, as this is the main artery used by drivers wanting to get to the Northside via the other two City bridges…It has been quite a while since anyone has seen the Belcan Bridge swing – one Belize City Council worker told us it has not happened since the last hurricane threat. Today, the bridge was closed at roughly 9:00 AM and scheduled to remain closed until about 11:00 AM as a hired crane was deployed to lift out massively corroded metal from the turntable and to lower replacement parts into the manhole…Asked why the Ministry of Works team chose a Monday morning to undertake the works, the government official on the site told us that they had to wait until the crane was available to them. The Ministry of Works, he told us, does not own one. We observed that the crane being manned by a Mennonite man was labeled National Crane Service.

I wanted to see a traffic jam resulting from the opening of the Swing Bridge, so one evening I walked around the area from 5:00 to 5:30, when my guidebook said the event would occur. I then sat down with an ice cream cone on King Street waiting, but the bridge did not open. Disappointed, I returned to my hostel before most of the shops closed and the streets emptied.

The next morning, I rode the Lake Independence bus. Downtown, it starts and ends its circular route at the Sarteneja bus stop, at the south end of the Swing Bridge. As I got off the bus at the end of its run, the driver and I started talking about my project and buses in Belize. When I finally walked out the front door, I realized it had been blocking traffic, and there were now cars backed up along the Swing Bridge and down Regent Street. I ended up seeing the Swing Bridge traffic jam that I wanted to.