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Urban mobility in Baghdad post-2003 has faced many challenges that have affected the state socially and economically
Dina M. Abdulrazzaq
The 2003 invasion of Iraq has caused major changes in the country’s urban areas. As part of Fanack’s Urbanism special folder, this article provides an overview of the postwar landscape in Iraq, how it affects urban mobility, and how it is related to social status and quality of life.
Baghdad is suffering from near-constant traffic congestion as a result of rapid population growth. While the standard of living for Iraqi citizens, especially in Baghdad and other major cities, has shown improvement, the surge in private car sales has resulted in an overwhelming number of vehicles on the streets.
As a result, the city’s infrastructure has struggled to keep pace, as authorities have faced challenges in constructing and maintaining roads for over three decades.
The problem is exacerbated by more cars getting stuck in long lines that are hardly slow, wasting time, resources and delaying supply networks. It is also taking a toll on the quality of life of citizens, creating an economic, social, psychological, and physical threat to communities around the city. Therefore, this article aims to identify the root causes of traffic congestion in Baghdad and propose potential solutions to alleviate the situation.
The most serious hazard to road users’ safety, health, economy, and environment is traffic congestion, which wastes time and resources like fuel while increasing carbon emissions. Road congestion occurs when roadways are inadequate to accommodate normal traffic, causing vehicles to slow down or stop and wait.
Baghdad, with a population of nearly seven million people, stands as West Asia’s second most densely inhabited metropolis after Tehran. Baghdad is home to around 16.8% of all Iraqis, with a population density of more than 85,140 people per km2.
Iraq’s transportation network of roads runs longitudinally, parallel to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Thishas historically led to the concentration of human settlements and activities along these two pathways. Because other regions in Iraq lacked major transportation hubs, these historic routes had high traffic numbers and put a strain on the country’s key highways.
Although Traffic on highways and streets is often heaviest during peak hours, Baghdad, on the other hand, is experiencing constant congestion regardless of the time of day. Baghdad’s key junctions and roads have significant traffic during regular business hours, holidays, and special occasions.
This is due to several issues, such as: increased population growth, internal migration, and incompetent management of the road network by the government, which is further exacerbated by a lack of regulations, and the failure to provide sufficient public transportation.
Consequently, the enduring traffic congestion remains a prevailing issue, as the absence of significant infrastructure improvements over the past three decades, despite multiple proposals, continues to offer no respite to Baghdad’s residents from the perpetual gridlock.
Possible causes of traffic congestion
The surge in vehicle numbers following the 2003 events had a clear influence on the capital’s traffic situation. The total number of privately owned automobiles registered in The Baghdad governorate increased from one million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2021, representing a nearly threefold increase.
This dramatic increase in the number of vehicles is not necessarily a bad thing. It is characteristic of population growth and the improvement in people’s standard of living. However, the maintenance and construction of roads failed to keep up with this increase, resulting in a significant burden on the infrastructure that was never designed to handle such high traffic volumes.
On the other hand, public transportation is so limited in Iraq, that private cars have largely become the most common and secure mode of transportation, especially for women. As a result, traveling between various regions of the capital can sometimes take hours.
Moreover, the lack of parking space across the city forces vehicles to park on the sides of roads, further slowing traffic and causing road blockages. Security checkpoints, implemented for safety purposes at entrances and exits of main roads, can act as bottlenecks leading to traffic congestion. Moreover, main and secondary roads are sometimes randomly closed for security concerns, or, in some cases, an abuse of authority.
Traffic laws are often not reinforced, causing citizens to break rules and making the roads unsafe and unreliable. Fines for running red lights, driving in the wrong lane, or blocking traffic by false parking are often not pursued or ignored after bribes are paid.
Furthermore, after 2003, Baghdad’s traffic lights stopped functioning due to the crises and wars that Iraq went through. Traffic lights have not been used in many parts of the city for a long time. On the other hand, traffic signs are susceptible to theft and recycling.
Impacts of traffic congestion
Governments worldwide are actively seeking solutions to address traffic congestion and mitigate the associated health, economic, and environmental challenges.
Foremost, among these challenges is the significant impact on the environment. The long traffic jams and a large number of cars lead to a sharp increase in carbon emissions. Car maintenance and repair also increase, leaving harmful waste that is often not safely disposed of.
The increased amount of traffic also causes erosion of roads and increases asphalt emissions into the air, especially in hot and sunny weather such as in Baghdad. These emissions are suspended in the air, forming aerosols that can have harsh health effects.
Car exhaust fumes also carry a multitude of aerosols and other pollutants, some of which are likely to be carcinogenic, according to the CDC in the United States. These fumes can also cause various respiratory diseases. The noise from traffic can also increase stress and a higher risk of diseases such as diabetes and increased bouts of rage range.
Economic effects are often the most significant impacts that may be listed. Traffic congestion increases vehicle running costs as drivers pay more for fuel, maintenance, and repair. In addition, the adverse health and environmental effects also strain the healthcare system which must scale up to meet the population’s needs.
Traffic congestion solutions
Humanity forms the cornerstone of society and civilization. Countries should strive to ensure their citizens’ rights to health, education, and favorable living conditions. Addressing the traffic problem in Baghdad could significantly contribute to achieving these goals.
Priority should be given to the maintenance and extension of the roadways to meet the needs of the increased number of cars. Moreover, it is essential to build the Baghdad Ring Road, which would surround the city from all sides and aid in absorbing internal traffic and transferring it to the city’s boundaries. This project could potentially reduce the capital’s major traffic congestion.
Providing multi-story parking garages in crowded areas of the capital would prevent double parking and reduce the congestion it causes. New multi-story developments should also be required to construct parking garages to support those projects.
Along with lowering traffic in Baghdad’s city center, the construction of a metro network would remove a significant number of cars off the roads, lowering energy use and environmental pollutants. A diverse and reliable public transportation network can help limit private vehicles further, improving the flow of people and goods around the city.
In order to help reduce the density of residential zones in and near the city center, it is essential to construct new residential areas and commercial and business zones further away in new areas of the city. Relocating various ministries, or their institutions, courts, and departments to areas outside of Baghdad’s city center, would also spread traffic away from the busy heart of the city.
Additionally, open green spaces can be created in the city center to serve as the city’s lungs and improve the environment and quality of air.
By Reducing the number of checkpoints, moving them away from junctions and regions with high traffic volumes, and where feasible, replacing them with mobile police units, the significant bottlenecks they create can be alleviated.
Lastly, the roads and streets of Baghdad need an integrated system together of security cameras and streetlight signals to build a smart traffic system at intersections and on important roads in order to monitor vehicle traffic, distribute it by volume, and implement traffic laws and fines.
The Iraqi government must adopt a comprehensive and long-term vision for the city’s roads, given that all mobility infrastructure projects in Iraq have been planned since the 1980s.
Solving traffic problems is not an easy feat and most countries around the world struggle with it. But there are many success stories that the Iraqi government can learn from. Prioritizing public transportation and establishing a robust network may not offer immediate results, but it is likely to be one of the most effective approaches.
Meanwhile, improving the roads and expanding the road network, improving the city layout, and implementing traffic laws can help reduce the large traffic congestion in the short term and allow residents to move around more easily.
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