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Are Roads Needed

Roads and their traffic form a mutually dependent transport system. Before deciding to improve a road it should be clear that it will actually be used. A road without users will no more bring about development than a school with no teachers will produce literacy.

Roads came into being to ease the movement of wheeled vehicles. They are of course useful for pedestrians or pack animals but it is unlikely that their improved mobility is sufficient to cover the cost of building and maintaining them. By making things at least easier for motor vehicles to operate, a good road can reduce their operating costs and enable them to travel to places they could not before. However, vehicle owners may not seize the opportunity to improve transport services or cut fares. Instead, they may prefer to simply pocket the savings. If they pass at least a fraction of their gains to users we can expect a multiplier effect as individuals exploit the increased mobility available to them, for example, by marketing perishable products which would otherwise have rotted.

Things have not always worked out as hoped. Private transport, which allows users to profit directly from a better road, is rare in the least-developed countries, particularly in Africa. Public transport vehicle owners often cannot improve services since their vehicles are too old and decrepit and they cannot afford additional ones. Even when they do people cannot take advantage because of lack of money to pay the fare, of markets to sell their products in, or more commonly, because they do not need a motor vehicle, or even a road, to get to the places they go to most.

People travel for many reasons. However, it is obvious,when monetary incomes are low, that people will use services they can walk to. Only in an emergency will a motor vehicle be used. Furthermore, low incomes make people unwilling to take the inevitable risk in seizing new opportunities if spending on travel is involved. A stalemate results. The road stays little used and since the meagre savings it provides to users do not cover the costs of maintenance the community will be unwilling to look after it and the road will lapse back to is original state.

This state of affairs can be avoided if more attention is devoted at the planning stage to determining where people actually travel to, which places or activities they would like to be more accessible and what measures need be taken so that they can profit from the road. Often more modest investments, in appropriate means of transport, in simple improvements in footpaths and tracks, or in better service coverage, can have a more sustainable impact than road improvement.