Lahore – A Canal Runs Through It

By Anjum Altaf

This is an essay about Lahore but it could be about any city in South Asia because it deals with an issue that is common to them all – traffic congestion. How do we propose to deal with traffic congestion that is growing all the time, what do we hope to achieve, what is the price we are willing to pay, and how do we know what we are doing makes sense?

The controversy in Lahore centers round the fate of a branch of the Bambawala-Ravi-Bedian (BRB) Canal (a 37 mile long waterway built by the Mughals and upgraded by the British in 1861) that runs through the city and is more than a cultural heritage for the citizens. The Lahore Canal is a unique linear park that serves as one of the few public green belts and the only free swimming pool for the majority of the city residents as can be seen in this photo essay.

The roads on both sides of the canal have already been widened once to accommodate traffic growth. This has restricted access to the waterway and made it hazardous to reach. Now the city proposes to add more lanes on both sides turning the road into an expressway. This would not only cut off all access to the canal but also mark the end of the green belt. Not surprisingly, this has sparked a conflict between the environmentalists on one side and the developmentalists and the city administration on the other.

The arguments of the environmentalists are the obvious ones and are presented here. The typical response of the developmentalists is along the following lines:

The Canal itself is not threatened. It will stay. So will the trees alongside the canal. It is that some of the trees in the green belt alongside the canal will have to go. This is the price that we have to pay for growth of the city of Lahore. Lahore city is choking and needs to expand… So please think of the future. In 5-10 years time after the road is expanded, the replanted trees would be back in bloom for our future generation to enjoy in a wider expanded Lahore.

Which side is correct and how does one resolve this controversy?

Let us leave aside the issue of whether constructing roads translates directly into development in any way. Let us leave aside the environmental implications of paving over green space and the unique value of linear urban parks that most cities spend money to construct. Let us also leave aside the issue of whether the public needs to be consulted in such decisions. Let us focus solely on the issue of traffic congestion. There is no doubt that the number of vehicles is increasing rapidly in South Asian cities leading to a worsening of traffic congestion. But is increasing road capacity an intelligent response to this challenge?

It would be so if one could show that road capacity can increase faster than the road space required by the number of vehicles added in any given interval of time. Any calculation will show that this cannot be the case which is why even cities like Beijing with very aggressive road construction programs are still choked by traffic. This is a simple calculation for traffic engineers and planners: take the road space required to accommodate one additional vehicle and multiply it by the number of vehicles expected to be added in a given time period. Now compute the cost of adding the required road capacity and see if the available resources can sustain the needed expansion. This simple calculation ignores the fact that each additional private vehicle adds to the need for additional parking space both at the origin and the destination. One only needs to think about the problems of urban parking to realize the significance of this added complexity and the consequences of ignoring it in the planning process.

Building roads is a simple-minded solution that is fated to fall behind the problem in the absence of other measures. Nor does it do anything for the overwhelming majority of people who do not own private vehicles but suffer the consequences of the congestion caused by their proliferation. Think about the situation of an unskilled worker who has to reach one end of the city from the other. How would the increased road capacity help him even if he or she agreed to give up the amenity of a free public park or swimming pool in return?

What are needed are smart initiatives that address the heart of the traffic congestion issue: How do we transport the maximum number of people with the minimum number of vehicles so as to minimize the need for additional road capacity? It should be obvious that public transit is the solution one should be considering. Most cities in South Asia are unable to afford underground metros or even above ground light rail alternatives. But Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a very feasible option that has worked effectively in many cities. Modern buses running on CNG cut down on urban air pollution at the same time.

In addition to BRT, a much greater reliance on taxis is also a part of the solution for the simple reason that unlike private vehicles that are parked most of the day, taxis remain in circulation. Thus a taxi transports many more persons per day than a private vehicle and needs only half the parking space. Lahore is perhaps unique amongst cities in that it has no public taxis at all and this amazing fact has missed the attention of the city authorities obsessed with constructing new roads.

The bottom line is that it is not the case that there is no need for any new road construction at all. But smart urban growth requires that road construction be integrated into an intelligent plan that is focused on transporting the maximum number of people with the minimum number of vehicles at the lowest economic and environmental cost.

Can we expect our city authorities to show that they understand the nature of the problem?

Ahmedabad is similar in size to Lahore. See here for the BRT planning in Ahmedabad. See here for the waterfront development planning in Ahmedabad.


  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:40h, 21 January Reply

    I agree with this solution. Further ways to promote public transportation are to impose a toll for use of certain roads by car – something I believe London has already instituted and Bombay and New York are contemplating. The toll also helps in road upkeep etc.

  • ercelan
    Posted at 18:22h, 21 January Reply

    BRT is the answer for expanding equitable access to urban transport. a point to emphasise is that wider roads simply invite more vehicles. look at any city – my examples are karachi (where i live), islamabad (visit frequently) and delhi (visit often) and dhaka (a recent visit).

    There are other adjustments possible, such as in the Bangkok I knew: office and shop timings were staggered to reduce congestion.

    For economists, the analytical issue is similar to peak load energy demand and pricing to minimise unused capacity. Ralph Turvey remains the most readable on this.

  • Nisar Ali Mirza
    Posted at 20:38h, 09 April Reply

    Glad to read this article. I am working on Canal as my thesis project at Razia Hassan School of Architecture, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. I am using your article as opening statement for my project concept. I am (with my two group mates) thinking of Canal as a long garden strip which was once pedestrianised. however recent ill-mannered developments like road construction along the canal and transforming it to an expressway, destroyed this heritage site, and destroyed the pedestrian experience altogether. We are working under the supervision of Dr Gulzar Haider, at three distinct points at the canal, Jallo, Jail Road Intersection, and Thokar Niaz Baig. I will be glad to share our projects here. Please feel free to write me at

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 04:30h, 10 April

      Nisar: Nice to know that the article is of use. Do share the progress on the blog. Do covey my regards to Dr. Gulzar Haider. Good luck.

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