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Libyan Writer Ghoma
الكاتب الليبي غومة

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Saturday, 16 January, 2010

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A 19th Century Solution to 21st Century’s Problem?

(Part III)

By: Ghoma

        Mass transit systems are and will always be the backbone of any country that cares about the welfare of its citizens and their economic wellbeing. There’re no good alternatives to hauling large human numbers. The question is not whether they’re the best existing solution but rather how to use them in combination with other systems, for the specific country, to suit its present conditions, pace of development, and be consonant with its economic means. Mass transit is no cheap endeavor. It’s an expensive infrastructure by any measure of time, energy and money. It’s expensive to build and onerous to maintain and run. Reason enough for a country’s decision-makers to mull over before spending people’s money.

        Transportation, in both its private and mass components, in addition to being a determinant to the country’s growth is also a shaper to its morphology: population distribution, economic activities, and urban configurations. While it ties the country together and makes its people aware of their country’s lay of the land, so to speak, it also partakes of that age-old cliché, where the roads and rails go so the entrepreneur, developer, and builder will follow. Mass-transit is the scaffolding on which an economy, and thus a country, is built.

        Tripoli is in the midst of facing its traffic problem, and its decision was to build a subway system. But was it the right decision? Or are there better alternatives worthy of looking at and evaluate before embarking on such costly and irreversible undertaking? The answer to the first question is maybe. And to the second is definitely. Traffic solutions are more than just traffic, but involve the whole set-up of society: population distribution, resource allocations, administrative redistricting, etc. In sum the solution to traffic often is a combination of various tools, approaches, and systems and, which, range from light rail, to surface means, and on to private cars.

        The subway project as it’s planned and now is being underway consists of few mainlines going east-west and north-south: from Janzour--->3araada, Tagiura--->Center city, Center city--->Airport, Qarqarish--->al-Jalaa Rd., covering a total of approximately100km and with 73 stations. All lines converge on Tripoli’s downtown. It follows the traditional model of center to periphery pattern. Though Tripoli’s overall configuration could be approximated to a truncated bilge, less-than-full-circle bulging to the south -and hugging the Mediterranean coast to the north, on the diameter side in the east-west directions- but the projected lines seem not to pay much attention to this formation. Unless the intention from the start was to stretch the city along the Mediterranean coast, east-west in a linear fashion, the course of the projected lines don’t make a lot of sense. As it’s, the city’s configuration is more amenable to a network of rings and radials than the cardo-decumanus scheme. The loops would follow the existing highway belts and the radials connect the loops with each other. In this way, the radials could be extended whenever there’s a need and perhaps a better coverage to the dissected wedge-shaped sectors would be had than the straight lines.

        In anyway, there’re still some questions in need to be addressed before a final layout could be put into action. Questions some of them deal with existing configuration and others will pop up as the trends underway jell into shape. These questions go from what kind of urban arrangement and distribution the offing trends will usher to; to what type of human activities, economic and otherwise, will occupy future workers; to the big question of whether or not by the mid-21st century the historical center of Tripoli still be the magnate of attractions to all the metropolitan area of Tripoli region? Other questions such as what will happen to the areas immediately adjacent to the lines? Will axial developments along the lines let to take place and how their traffic loads will be handled and dealt with? To what is the preferred role, size, and shape the city should opt at? Et cetera, etc.?

        The challenge of planning resides of how to balance existing realities with morphing trends. Most bureaucratic planners tend to follow what is routine and familiar, few had ever the foresight to venture beyond the snafus of their times. Physical planning was a child of the age of despotism. Popes, kings and dictators dreamt of leaving their imprints on the land. City planning today still suffers from that heritage. Thus it’s still beholden to renderings of frozen static visions of what the city must look like. Municipalities and their planners took a liking, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, to what was known as the Master Plan! Where from to time-to-time images and perhaps leading concepts will be adjourned to suit whoever holds the burse. This frozen snapshot vision, of whoever was calling the shots, has been long found to lack the flexibility demanded by an always-changing circumstances and vicissitudes of large urban aggregates. It never worked and never will work. It constituted a bureaucratic tool, which, often was overtaken by the reality before even it was enacted into law. If today still survives in backwater countries, it’s because it suits their political and cultural environments, where the bureaucrats of the central government, as in Libya, seem to have nothing else to do except to micromanage and regulate who builds and where. These folks failing to busy themselves with the macro-management issues have turned into peddlers of petty contracts. By issuing directives to cities and towns of how must look like and how should do their work, the central government has neglected its tasks of creating the right environment, laws and incentives for cities and communities to grow and prosper, instead of tying their hands and hampering their efforts to find their ways. In other words, hobbling them by these absurd interferences!

        Returning planning to its true mission: to anticipate and envision the future, and to prepare for it. In this perspective the course of the projected lines, their tracings on the land, seem to be trapped in the claws of the reactive mode. The lines are no more than perhaps an answer to what already existed on the ground. Taking into consideration the ‘facts’ on the grounds as if they were written on stone. In other words, the lines assume the present layout and fabric of the city as permanent; or they’re trying to enhance their permanency. If this plan is implemented as it’s, it’ll force, at least for the foreseeable future, businesses and residents alike to locate and develop along its axes, which, will only lead to further traffic nodes and bottlenecks.

        It’s good to keep in mind some of facts of recent history. Tripoli’s was a small sleeping town before Independence. Its growth rates had started to accelerate only with the beginning of the ‘60’s and 70’s of the last century. Thus it went from a town of less than 50,000 to today’s status, of an outright metropolis in less a third of a century. Most, if not all, of this fast growth explosion was attributable to being the capital of the country. It’s following in the footsteps of many a Capital city, that of sucking most of the oxygen in the country. Tripoli is repeating the experiences of some European cities back in the age of empires, as Paris and London. If these cities appear today as tired and fatigued urban systems, is because they’d always reacted to their fate accompli rather than preceded events and determined their path into the future. Those cities were victims in large part of their own making, by not curbing their growths to reflect their abilities to provide adequate living standards. In doing so, they fell to circumstances beyond their control. They became projections, in space, to their nations’ highly centralized state systems.

        At this juncture, Tripoli -as well as most of the other Libyan cities- is still at the threshold to a big city status. Hence it behooves her to think about what kind of a place it intends to become. It’d be opportune at this juncture to ask for more autonomy to direct its own affairs. To ask for a charter and re-distribution of tasks among and between cities, their regions, and the state, and to determine what role it may play in all of them. As it stands now, Tripoli being an administrative center of a small state in the 21st century, cannot aspire to repeat Paris or London’s experiences. It has to find its own path to the future.

        If our times have brought any new insights, one of them was the idea of decentralization of power and economics. The modern state system since the days of Westphalia has gone slowly but consistently through modifications and changes. Most of these tweakings were on the expense of the state. A highly centralized state is no more seen as the best way to organize humans and their activities. The present trends continue to focus on finding new architecture that will take advantages of the globalization impact and its consequences.

        In these still undefined fuzzy offings, the signs indicate that economies and competition seem to operate better when they were organized on regional levels. To operate on that level, therefore, political and administrative spheres have to loosen their grips and give more leeway to the local. “Ahl Mecca know better its hills” as the old saw goes. Thus power distribution between the national and the local will be the contesting ground for the post-industrial age. Ghoma


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