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39: Stuck in traffic

Massoud Ahmadi
Herat in western Afghanistan isn't short of commercial activity, new buildings and plenty of traffic. The problem is where to park.
10.03.2013  |  Herat
Infrastructurally challenged: Herat's parking problem has solutions on paper but patchy application of regulations. (Photo: ISAF Media. Main photo by kind permission of Naeem Azizian) 
Infrastructurally challenged: Herat's parking problem has solutions on paper but patchy application of regulations. (Photo: ISAF Media. Main photo by kind permission of Naeem Azizian) 

Foreign observers of Afghanistan might be forgiven for thinking that life here is a constant struggle against poverty and corruption, fear of NATO bombs or Taliban attacks. Even with an abundance of such macabre incidents however, life continues in all its facets. Like Herat’s parking problem, for example.

There are 75,000 cars in this city of 400,000 people, reflecting its place as one of the country’s busiest and most progressive hubs, with heavy local and Iranian investment and plenty of growth. And now a nasty snarl in an urban landscape that was not built for such traffic.

“There are far more vehicles than the city can handle, roads are much narrower due to the fact that a huge number of vehicles are parked at the roadside, and traffic is at its maximum,” says local resident Jamaluddin. 

Like most drivers, who are mainly men, he has little choice other than to park on sidewalks or other areas used by pedestrians, while local police busy themselves dishing out fines to offenders. But not to all of them, apparently.

“Rich people and government officials can park their vehicles any where they want to park in the city and no one holds them accountable, but if an ordinary citizen does it, he has no choice but to pay,” says Abdul Rahman Hassanzada, another Herat resident.

Lots of cars, no parking lots

The big Herat squeeze looks set to continue too as local commerce grows and more people take to the roads in new cars with nowhere to put them.

“Rich people and government officials can park their vehicles any where they want." Abdul Hassanzada, Herat resident.

“If stores and markets are built without parking lots, traffic will  be unimaginably huge," forewarns Jamaluddin. The Herat resident also harbours concerns about the congested urban landscape's future aesthetics: "Traffic lessens the beauty of the city,” adds the concerned resident.

It all boils down to Herat’s spontaneous - rather than planned and regulated - growth, says Mayor Muhammad Saleem Taraki. “Since there was no city masterplan in the past, people are having parking problems. Building parking lots is one of the main goals and plans of the municipality, but given the current situation, implementing and realizing our plans take time.” But in future, “Nobody will be allowed to build high rise buildings without parking lots,” he assures.

Tell that to the developers though. “The reason we are not interested in building parking lots for our buildings is that they may cause some security problems,” says Zalmai Zaheer, a businessman in the construction sector. “Given the security situation and the fact that everybody can easily go in and out of markets, it is possible that explosives will be planted in parking lots, which could cause many fatalities and financial damages.”

Actually, there are pertinent regulations. “The regulations of my department require that 60 per cent [of available development space] across the city be allocated to high rise buildings, while 40 per cent is allocated to parking lots and a green environment,” said Mohtasebzada, the municipality’s head of urban development and residence building.

“Over the past several years, we have averted the construction of around 800 buildings due to their not having parking lots,” he says.

So the debate continues, as do the traffic snarls and car-cluttered sidewalks. And Heratis are not impressed.

“The city is getting smaller and smaller given the population growth,” says Hassanzada. "The municipality must be held accountable for this problem. If vehicles are parked in pedestrian areas, where should people walk?”