The city's biggest problem isn't suicide bombers or militants... it's the traffic.

Kabul, Afghanistan is a dense, dusty metropolis of 5 million or so that’s now estimated to be the fifth fastest-growing city in the world. Spread over two basins in the Hindu Kush and split by a chain of mountains, the site has been an ancient trading hub on the Silk Road, a thriving center of commerce and culture, a destination for foreign tourists as well as foreign armies, a scene of intellectual ferment and political upheaval. The Mughal Emperor Babur loved the city so much that he made Kabul the rather inconvenient seat of his dominion over India and remains buried there.

Also, the traffic sucks.

A view of the traffic flow on a street in Kabul. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Kabul's amazing growth since 2001 has defied the best—actually the only—laid plans to accommodate it. The previous city plan, a Soviet-style 25-year comprehensive master plan that was to guide the city’s growth from 1978 to 2003, expired 10 years ago; it was drawn up when the city had about half a million residents, and it envisioned population growth to about 3 million by 2003. That estimate may actually have been in the ballpark, but in the meantime the city has added another two million residents—though no one can say with certainty, since the country’s last complete census also dates to the late 1970s—and in any case, the period covered by the plan was one of nearly continuous war, during which street maintenance and green spaces were not the most urgent problems.

The war's legacy is still shaping the city, though not in the ways one might expect. Prominent recent episodes to the contrary, Kabul is safe relative much of the rest of the country. But rural livelihoods have been decimated. Millions fled their villages, and the country. When they returned, after the Taliban fell, nothing was left.

A typical refugee "used to have a good house in his village, he used to have a good orchard … But now he goes and everything is ruined. And moreover, around there there is no school for his children, no clinic … plus no employment," explains Yousaf Pashtun, who twice served as Afghanistan’s minister of urban development and housing and is now a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai.

So, having no place to go in Kabul, Pashtun says, "People go and put their houses on whatever land they can get." The result is that an estimated 70 percent of Kabul’s population lives in informal settlements, many in houses that crawl up Kabul’s mountainsides, with only the ones at the lowest elevations accessible by car by way of rutted, gravelly roads.

A man offers evening prayers on a hilltop overlooking Kabul. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Qais Akbar Omar, an author and carpet maker who recently published a memoir of growing up in Afghanistan, fled with his family from his home in a wealthy neighborhood of Kabul during the civil war. During the Taliban era, his family was forced, under threat of violence, to sell their house. After the fall of the Taliban, his family purchased a plot of land on a mountainside from a squatter for the equivalent of $900."“We just wanted a piece of land on the mountain so we could see our house from far away," he says. 

But all the land on the mountain is technically owned by the government. And not only does Omar’s family expect to be kicked off eventually, the area is also vulnerable to earthquakes, and the city has generally not extended services to what it expects will be only temporarily residential areas. Pietro Calogero, a lecturer in urban studies and planning at San Francisco State University who wrote his PhD dissertation on city planning in Kabul, where he also worked for the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, characterized the municipality’s seeming neglect of these informal areas as a deliberate planning decision.

However, private companies started to provide the services the municipality would not. Omar’s family now pays the equivalent of about $36 a month for water from a local company—a considerable amount in a country where the average salary of a civil servant is $150 a month. 

•       •       •       •       •

Despite the myriad problems, there is reason to hope. A new plan to guide Kabul’s development for the next 15 years was finally approved in May. It estimates that Kabul’s population will grow to around 8 million. The streets, which were planned for 30,000 cars and which now accommodate about 400,000 vehicles, are by then expected to have some 800,000 vehicles.

But the cars themselves are not the most important cause of the traffic, according to Pashtun. "The major problem," he says, "is the wrong concentration of urban functions in the wrong locations." Major government offices and commercial storage are concentrated in the city center, and all major roads pass through it. At the same time, many of Kabul’s other existing roads are not being used, due to poor traffic management—Kabul only has a handful of traffic lights. Says Pashtun: "This is unbelievable, and intolerable, really."

The new plan calls for three ring roads around the city, and one around the city center, which Pashtun hopes will eventually be totally pedestrianized. Pashtun knows this dream is a long-term proposition. "It will come true," he says. "But I’m not sure I will be there or not to walk on it." The plan also envisions, over a 12-year timeline, the development of light-rail networks alongside the ring roads with links to the city center, as well as underground rapid transit trams. In the shorter term over the next two years, the plan calls for a system of rapid city buses. Kabul's public transit now, Pashtun says, is worse than it was in 1977.

As for the informal settlements, on paper the solution is simply to move many of them to "New Kabul," a planned development in and around the district of Deh Sabz. The plan has international backing and a website detailing the development’s green spaces and its potential to create jobs. Planners hope it will provide an additional 250,000 housing units. Calogero views that plan as unrealistic, in large part because it’s not clear where the development’s water would come from. Meanwhile the Afghanistan Analyst Network's Fabrizio Foschini has pointed out that Deh Sabz, too, is home to informal settlers and that conflicts have already broken out between different claimants to the land.

The 15-year vision could cost, according to Pashtun, over a billion dollars; meanwhile the city collects around $51 million a year in revenue, and foreign funds are leaving fast. But if it succeeds, in theory, within 15 years, even poor Kabulis could have a smooth commute, formal title to the land they live on, government-provided water and sewage systems, reliable electricity, and maybe even a pedestrian quarter downtown.


Top image: People shop for festive goodies in preparation for Eid al-Fitr in Kabul. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

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