The impact of improved roads on the lives of the rural poor in the least-developed countries of Africa and to a lesser extent Asia has been notoriously modest. In part, this was due to the absence of maintenance. The road simply did not last long enough to change people’s ways. However, it was mainly due to the fact that the roads simply did not make more accessible the places where people wanted to go. In spite of the road people were not more mobile; maybe they could not afford the fare or perhaps transport services did not improve.
The need to situate roads planning within a wider inquiry into the spatial distribution of households, of their destinations and of their ability to get to them without excessive waste of time began to be recognized during the ’80’s. Time spent in transport is generally time wasted. Although the very poor may not be able to attach much monetary value to it, it remains that, if their day is filled with unproductive activities, there is little hope that their situation will ever improve. Poverty and isolation are intertwined. Roads will be part of the solution if they provide more mobility.
Two planning tools have been devised: Integrated Rural Accessibility Planning (IRAP); and Basic Access provision. They aim to integrate the factors influencing accessibility within a comprehensive analytic framework to allow tradeoffs amongst them. At the same time, they ensure that choices are made locally. Planners evaluate the consequences of community choices and clarify them so that all stakeholders can choose their road network in the light of their own best interests.
Implementing an accessibility planning approach requires close interdepartmental coordination. However, roads, in common with other sectors, health, water, and education, are normally planned by individual ministries. They may communicate, rarely to the point of agreeing to subordinate their own budgetary allocations to that higher level of arbitration centred on accessibility that the approach requires.
The economic and social cost of this fragmentation of responsibility is great. Roads are expensive to build and maintain but their impact on rural poverty is often minimal. Moreover, the modern tendency to promote local participation in the name of good governance can also lead to the costs being off-loaded on the communities themselves who cannot raise all the funds to maintain them. This is generally unsustainable since, although the costs remain substantial, the benefits of roads become largely social and non-monetary as we move down the scale from national, through regional to local, and motor traffic yields to people, bikes and motorbikes. Their costs must be shared by higher levels of government through annual subsidies.
For the moment road engineers and planners must take as wide a view as their situation allows. Rather than hunting down more refined ways of selecting roads and speculating on the benefits they may bring, they should reflect, together with the population concerned, on what the road is really for (what activities will develop because of its presence)? Will the people who most need it be able to afford to use it (and what should be done about the means of transport available if they cannot?). Finally, are there cheaper ways to bring users and services closer to each other, such as by building more markets or clinics, for example?
For more on accessibility and mobility this paper could be useful