by Waseem Shehzad (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 4, Sha'ban, 1437)
Tehran, capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, also suffers from the problem of modernity: traffic congestion and pollution. Officials need to pay serious attention to address both problems.
The Iranian capital, Tehran, sits in a bowl at the foot of al-Borz mountains. As world capitals go, it is a beautiful city with lush landscaped gardens along its numerous highways as well as many parks that can be found in different parts of the city. But it is also a sprawling metropolis with all the attendant problems that modernity brings in its wake. Yes, even the capital of the Islamic Republic is plagued by the ills of modernity.
Tehran is actually three cities rolled into one. The global north-south divide is encapsulated in Tehran as well. In the north reside most of the well-off people (taghutis in Iranian parlance and something most Muslims familiar with Qur’anic terminology would readily understand). In the middle part of the city lives, well the middle class, while the poor are the predominant group in the South.
Tehran is literally exploding at the seams as more and more people crowd into the city. Traffic congestion during rush hour is just as bad as in any Western city — London, New York, or Los Angeles. And with cars comes that other problem: pollution. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at least 7 million people worldwide die annually because of diseases caused by air pollution.
“On average, the situation has deteriorated and increased the levels of air pollution by 8%. So the situation is getting worse,” Maria Neira, the WHO’s public health chief, said during a news briefing in the Swiss city of Geneva on May 11. “And we know that 80% of the urban population living in cities are exposed to very high levels of air pollution, and therefore, resulting in diseases,” she said. While the WHO health chief was making a general statement about the global situation, Tehran is not immune to this problem either.
To deal with traffic congestion, the Tehran municipality is building new highways. This will certainly help but it also adds to the problem. More people are flooding into the city and with the policy to import more cars now that sanctions are lifted or even manufacture them inside the country, the highways are likely to be as clogged as before because they can accommodate only so many vehicles. Instead of building more cars, both the Tehran municipality as well as the government must look into investing in the public transit system. In Tehran, there are reserved lanes for buses. This helps them move through the city fairly efficiently but there is an urgent need to look at the monorail system as well as expand the subway system.
The British capital, London, offers a good example of how the subway, bus and rail systems are integrated. This should be studied to improve Tehran’s public transit as well as help reduce pollution. Similarly, vehicles emitting pollutants should be brought under control. Many countries have instituted vehicle emission tests to address the problem of pollution. There is no single solution to a complex problem but unless it is recognized and addressed, the situation will only get worse. Already, respiratory problems have increased alarmingly.
The Islamic Republic must also look into developing satellite towns outside Tehran and move some of the ministries and offices there. If proper infrastructure is put in place and incentives are offered to people, the population pressure on Tehran can be reduced. The aim should be to encourage people to move outside Tehran and settle there instead of commuting to Tehran on a daily basis.
In recent years, Islamic Iran has removed visa restrictions on citizens of some 50 countries. They are granted visas upon arrival. This is a sensible policy but it requires proper planning. There is a flood of tourists from neighboring countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Azerbaijan as well as the Central Asian Republics coming to Iran. Their entry point is Tehran. True, the Imam Khomeini International Airport is a new and capable airport with lots of facilities but the immigration staff needs to be increased to deal with the huge influx of tourists. It has been observed that visitors have to wait for an hour or more before they are processed at the immigration counters. Such delays create a negative impression of the Islamic Republic. It must show that it is not another third world or a typical Muslim country where inefficiency is the norm.
The government of the Islamic Republic should seriously consider whether religious tourists could be flown directly to cities like Qum and Mashhad and processed there. This would not only ease congestion at Tehran but also boost the economies of those cities. After all, the government has announced that it not only wants to encourage tourism but also build more hotels to accommodate and serve them. The issue of entry points must also be given serious consideration.
First impressions, it is said, are important. Long queues at airport entry points with immigration officers taking their time punching information into computers at a leisurely pace does not create a very positive impression. There are separate counters for Iranian citizens and foreign passport holders. Is it not possible to subdivide the foreign passport holders processing into separate categories? Those who have already obtained a visa from abroad should be processed separately from those whose details need to be punched into the system. It is of the utmost importance that airport efficiency be increased.
Qum used to be a sleepy little town but has become quite crowded and congested since the establishment of a number of new howzahs, madrasahs and institutions following the victory of the Islamic Revolution. There are also a large number of students from abroad that study in Qum. Their numbers will only increase with time. While Qum has developed considerably expanding its infrastructure — roads, hotels, restaurants, etc. — it is imperative that its development is done in a planned rather than a haphazard manner. The same rigorous planning should apply to other towns and cities as well.
The need to ease traffic congestion as well as reduce air pollution in major cities should be looked at on an emergency basis.