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The right of mobility-Ahmad Rafay Alam

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The gift of mobility is one of Allah’s many blessings to his Ashraf ul Mukhlukat. The restlessness of the human spirit and the mobility of man are fundamental features of the human race. How tragic, then, to see this precious gift violated in the way it is.

The invention of the wheel is hailed as one of man’s greatest creations. The wheel was like a key that unlocked the human spirit and gave us the taste of accessibility.

Mobility and accessibility are two sides of the same coin. Mobility, the ability to move from point to point, can only be exercised if there is accessibility. A new road to a village and an internet connection both provide accessibility, albeit in completely different ways.

Where mobility is a basic human right, accessibility is what gives it value.

The history of man is nothing more than a depiction of the lust for mobility and the power of accessibility. Where the wheel provided for trade, it also provided for chariots. Trade and war have, in so many ways, been the primary means mobility and accessibility shape the trajectory of our race. In the last century, the invention of the internal combustion engine and the cheap fuel that powered it, have seen the growth of recreational transport. More recently, concerns regarding the environment and the challenges of climate change force us to reconsider and re-evaluate the importance and relevance of these concepts. It is time to chart a new trajectory.

We are familiar with mobility when it manifests itself in our lives in the form of the automobile, the train and the airplane. We are familiar with the accessibility roads, railway stations and airports provide. Each one of these means of mobility and accessibility draw almost exclusively on petrol or diesel – fossil fuels – which, when consumed, becomes the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.

Driving an automobile, an everyday activity, is actually the most polluting activity normal humans can engage in. Each tank of petrol can be seen as its equivalent in carbon, and its release into the atmosphere courtesy the internal combustion engine is no more than an addition of greenhouse gases to an already suffocating earth. Our trains run on diesel and the global airline industry is responsible for as much as 1.5% of annual global carbon emissions (note that, because most of this carbon emission is released 30,000 feet in the air, this effect of this 1.5% contribution is greater because greenhouse gases are more potent when released higher up).

Consider this: for every tank of petrol consumed, an equivalent weight of green house gasses is emitted that pollutes the atmosphere. Now think of the 1.8 million registered automobiles in the city of Lahore alone. Often, I remind people who think trees are important for the urban environment that the total carbon stored by 35 fully grown trees over the course of half a century is the same that is poured into the atmosphere by a single automobile in one year. The City District Government of Lahore’s air quality monitoring devices now tell us that the air in the city is the most polluted in history.

Right thinking people should respond by applying a complete moratorium on the use of the private automobile as a means of transport. But can one do that in Pakistani cities and still live a fruitful life? What’s happened is that, before our eyes, we have allowed our cities to sprawl forth almost entirely dependant on the automobile for providing mobility and roads for accessibility. It is now impossible to live and earn profitably without owning an automobile. Lahore, for instance, has no public transport system (the few hundred buses catering to about 8 million residents is not a public transport system, it’s an extortion mafia taking advantage of low supply and high demand) and getting about by bicycle, as romantic as the notion may seem, is difficult given some of the commuting distances we now take for granted.

In allowing our cities to sprawl out like they have and by not investing in public transport infrastructure, our urban planners have, in effect made us dependant on the polluting automobile. In doing so, they have violated the sacred right of mobility. They have done this by depriving us of choice of transport. Consider this: if a person living in any of the “posh” or newer residential housing schemes wants a dozen eggs, will he walk to a nearby store or, the store being a mile away, will he take the car. More profoundly, lack of transport options means a man who doesn’t own a car is simply not in a position to enjoy the same quality of life as much as a man who does. Elsewhere, in countries that have invested in public transport infrastructure in their cities, people are faced with a multiplicity of transport options from walking, cycling, the bus, underground rail, over-ground light rail and even using an elevator.

The more financially fortunate Pakistani take this violation of a fundamental right for granted. Some people I tell the example above reply by saying they send a servant for quotidian chores. How comfortable: to take the violation of a fundamental right and erase it from the mind with a bit of classism.

Our means of being mobile and providing accessibility also inform other values. Take Lahore again. For a city of nearly 8 million people and 1.8 million registered vehicles (cars, buses, vans etc.) simple arithmetic tells us less than 20 percent of the population owns cars. To think, then, that our government and our urban planners spend billions upon billions of Rupees on roads that will be used and enjoyed by a fraction of the population – without a Rupee invested in Public transport – is to put private interest over public good. Such elitist development driven (pun intended) by automobile dependency simply will not do.

The nexus between mobility, the environment and public transport is becoming impossible to ignore. It is my submission that our urban planners have implicitly violated the fundamental right to mobility by not properly regulating urban growth. To begin righting this wrong will have to start with accepting this proposition.

One last thought: What we do to the environment in the name of easing traffic congestion is criminally irresponsible. Can anyone else – and here I quote sustainable design genius William McDonough – conceive of a machine that “creates oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes Nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates micro-climates, changes color with the seasons and self replicates”? And we knock them down without a second thought to make roads for cars that spew gases that kill us. What could be more criminally irresponsible?

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx.


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