A sense of order arrives on Kampala’s roads

Posted: October 25, 2007 in Blog

One of the most fascinating, and scariest, facets about life in Kampala is the traffic. Someone told me recently that Uganda has the third-highest rate of traffic fatalities in the world. I wouldn’t doubt it– though one report would refute this claim, and also make me wonder what the roads must be like in Swaziland.

Anyway, traffic here is fun. Recently, I was in a taxi car with a visiting friend and we got stuck in a traffic jam. You know, the usual kind of jam. A bus was stuck in the middle of an intersection, blocking traffic in all directions. A ray of sunlight would have a hard time reaching the street below, given the unbroken mass of cars hopelessly stuck in all directions. My friend’s jaw hit the floor as we watched drivers, including ours, do everything possible to escape the jam, including driving up on the sidewalk.

That’s par for the course here, where people regularly drive on the wrong side of the road to escape traffic and where not a single week has gone by when I haven’t witnessed a serious car accident.

But it’s not all chaos. In fact some of the traffic behaviour can be downright amusing.

For instance, watching traffic at one of the few intersections with traffic lights. There are only, by my count, four sets of traffic lights here, in a city approaching two million in population.

Other reasons aside, it’s actually quite practical to instead rely on roundabouts, which they do here, given the power supply problems. It is not uncommon to come up to one of the few traffic lights only to find them dark because the power is out. Roundabouts solve that problem.

But the roads have been undergoing one heck of a transformation in preparation for the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) taking place here in November, where presidents and prime ministers from 53 countries will come, along with the Queen, Prince Phillip and Prince Charles.

As such, Kampala has been getting a major face-lift. Roads repaved, sidewalks put in place, streetlights installed, etc.  It has meant a few months of major construction since I got here, but things are beginning to take shape with the meeting less than a month away and the results are startling.

Streets that were pitch-black at night are now lit; roads that were jammed with cars in every which way have now been made orderly with painted lines (though they often aren’t exactly straight…); stop signs have been installed; and police are deployed at every major intersection to monitor traffic behaviour.

And it is at those intersections that the difference is most striking. One intersection I cross twice a day was recently changed from a roundabout to traffic lights. At first, the change caused utter chaos. The signals were largely ignored and most time was spent trying to unsnarl traffic that crossed at the wrong time. I’d often cross this intersection on a boda-boda, weaving through the cars scattered about the intersection like a fistful of popsicle sticks tossed on the ground.

But then the police showed up. Now, they stand at the intersection and scold, and in one case I saw, even smack, boda-boda drivers that don’t obey the signals. They stand in the middle of the street stopping traffic in directions that have a red light.

Suddenly, chaos subsides. Pedestrians now cross the street on their signal, feeling much safer than before when they essentially played a game of real-life Frogger, dodging speeding cars as they scurried from lane to lane.

And so we can now see the effect CHOGM is having on day-to-day life here. The question, though, is whether we are witnessing a change in the culture of driving here, or whether CHOGM will be but an eye in the storm.

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