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Planning rural mobility in poor countries

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This website was set up to help planners and managers of rural road networks in developing countries to ask the questions which should be asked in planning a program, to better appreciate why they should be posed, and to provide access to the growing body of knowledge about rural transport systems of which roads are a component.

The need to build or improve as many rural roads as possible to the best technical was unquestioned by governments and donors until quite recently. Justification was often seen as a troublesome formality and evaluation models were valued more for their complicity in providing the answers people wanted rather than for their rigour. It was implicitly assumed that a pent-up demand was out there which would generate ever-growing numbers of larger vehicles or even that somehow development would spontaneously come into being once the road was built.

It did not. Many rural roads, built expensively to high standards, were little used, and are now dilapidated or even closed since no money was available  to maintain them. This tendency was reinforced by the pressure of donor countries to disburse, of recipient countries to obtain as much investment as possible, of engineering and construction firms to favour expensive options and the high fees that came with them, and equipment manufacturers to sell their products. These vested interests resisted the introduction of appropriate construction methods using local labour, more viable when labour is abundant and capital scarce. Finally, corruption, which flourishes in the construction industry where lots of cash is involved and management control is weak, increases significantly the cost  of all infrastructure.

The failure of this approach at last became evident.  It was just not sustainable. A road is not an end in itself but rather just one  link within a network which  in turn must be viewed as a component of a rural transport system, one of many ways of making people more mobile    and services and markets more accessible. After all, why not move services closers to the users or vice versa and forget about costly motorable roads?  Or just build them for non-motorized vehicles? Ignoring this hierarchy of possibilities leads to unused and unmaintained roads and wasted funds. Sustainability needs collaboration with users at the planning stage to answer basic questions to identify the pertinent road networks, determine  the numbers and types of motor and non-motorised vehicles  likely to use them and for what reasons, and agree upon what improvement work should be done. Climatic wear and tear and resulting maintenance needs must also be taken into account. Once built, its maintenance must be entrusted to those who have the knowledge, funds and motivation to carry it out. Systematic training in managing and doing maintenance supported by guarantees of regular and predictable funding is essential. History can provide useful lessons.

Diffusion of this approach has proved to be slow although progress is being made. Planning of rural roads has been often centred in public works departments who do not have the mandate or incentive to explore other than technical questions nor the funds to to get to the rural areas. Roads may be identified without looking at the network they are a part of. The rural transport system of which the road network is a component is rarely looked at in any detail, since facilitating the use of often rare motor vehicles is the main consideration. Indeed, sometimes network considerations are ignored so as to concentrate on a single length of road.  Non-motorised users, often the vast majority, have been seen as marginal if not downright inconvenient. As a result investments providing greater accessibility to many people are often ignored in favour of stretches of over-designed roads, expensive to maintain and build.

The site pivots on six key questions for transport planners. These lead to short analyses of related topics sometimes linked to external sites for those who want more detail . Powerpoint summaries of many topics are provided for training. Finally, since history does actually repeat itself, I have included excursions along historical byroads, although not always in the same tone of high seriousness.