Untangling traffic in Kabul

Posted: 4 March 2004

Author: Lailuma Saded, Shahbuddin Tarakhel, and Wahidullah Amani

A plan to restore electric bus service in Kabul may go a long way towards easing congestion and pollution. Lailuma Saded, Shahbuddin Tarakhel and Wahidullah Amani report from Kabul.

Given the current levels of smog and traffic chaos, it's no surprise that many residents of the Afghan capital are excited about plans to resurrect Kabul's trolleybus system.

Riding a bus in Kabul today
Riding a bus in Kabul today
Riding a bus in Kabul today. With only 108 public buses in a city with a population between two and four million people, many passengers are forced to cram on board and even travel on the roof.

Haji Faqir Mohammad, 78, a resident of west Kabul, has fond memories of what he says was an efficient way of getting around. "It used to take 15 or 20 minutes to reach the city [and] we didn't have these transport problems," he said.

Today, given the rapid increase in the number of people and vehicles in the city over the past two years, the same journey takes as much as 40 minutes.

Sanober, 80, remembers riding trolleybuses to her early morning cleaning job decades ago. Back then, she paid one afghani to get to work. Now, given the shortage of transportation, she has to take more expensive taxis.

Sanober enthuses that to see trolleybuses back on the street will make her feel young again.

Elham, 36, a shopkeeper in Kote Sangi, feels the same way. He grins as he remembers that "going to school used to be fun" on the electrically-powered buses.

He says that he amazes his younger brothers with tales of the vehicles - particularly the fact that many had female drivers.

Haji Faqir Mohammad remembers that too - although with disapproval. He says that he would like to see male drivers this time; he claims that women were too "impatient" to drive buses and were teased by young boys.

Bus revival

Right now, a few lonely electricity poles in west Kabul are all that remain of a system built with help from Czechoslovakia. Running from 1975, the lines headed east and west across the capital.

In December 1992, fighting between various mujahedin factions brought the last of 86 vehicles to a halt. The wires were then looted and sold to scrap dealers.

Now the plan is for trolleybuses to swing silently back into action by the end of the year.

Ghulam Farooq Farooqi, technical head of the transport ministry project, said that restoring the electric cables, buying 50 new vehicles and training personnel in the Czech Republic will cost approximately US$23 million.

Plans call for the buses to eventually travel in four directions covering over 50 kilometres.

"In the second half of 2004 we want to activate the buses going in one direction," Farooqi told IWPR. "Work is still going on but, God willing, by September 2004 they will be ready for public use."

Cleaner transport

The vehicles will be purchased from the Czech company Ostrov-Skoda, which will also provide technical assistance.

Ostrov-Skoda trolleybus similar to those that could be in Kabul by year's end. Photo: Ostrov-Skoda
Ostrov-Skoda trolleybus similar to those that could be in Kabul by year's end. Photo: Ostrov-Skoda
Ostrov-Skoda trolleybus similar to those that could be in Kabul by year's end© Ostrov-Skoda

Farooqi said that the return of electric buses will not only make life easier for commuters in the capital but will also reduce the amount of pollution that currently chokes the city.

One big question that remains is whether, in a city with regular all-day power cuts, there is really enough electricity to power the project.

But Mohammad Yunis Nawandish, an undersecretary at the ministry of power and water, said that while his ministry had not yet been provided with many details, he was confident there would be enough electricity available to meet demands.

"The substations from which they will need electricity have not been specified but we will provide the required power," he said.

Certainly, everyone agrees that new forms of public transport are desperately needed to relieve the crush of commuters who line the roads of the capital every morning and evening.

Najiba, a teacher at Ariana School traveling with three children aged 18 months and three and six years, is just about in tears as she struggles with the overcrowded buses in the city centre.

"Because my financial situation is not good I can't take a taxi or go in a Townace [minibus taxis], so I have to wait for a Milli bus and get on board with much difficulty," she said.

Engineer Mohammed Asif, the director general of the Milli bus company, said that there are just 108 public buses in a city with a population variously estimated at between two and four million people.

With passengers forced to cram on board, and even hang out of the doors, he agreed that too few vehicles are in service. "Back in 1992 there were 800 buses with a population of one million and that was not enough," he told IWPR. He added that India, Iran and Japan have all agreed to help provide more buses.

Lailuma Saded, Shahbuddin Tarakhel and Wahidullah Amani are independent journalists based in Kabul.

© Institute of War and Peace Reporting (ARR No. 107, 25-Feb-04). Reproduced with kind permission.