Ride At Your Own Risk
Deep within one of Lahore’s concentric circles, adjacent to the army patrol and machine gun nest stationed on the intersection between Shami Road and Mall Road, exists the Fortress Stadium – a retail park with a hodge podge of clothing outlets, frozen yoghurt dispensaries, street stalls selling a variety of carnival foods, and the garish, gaudy screeching titan of scrap metal and axel grease that is Joyland.
Joyland, is referred to as an “amusement park,” and to the sort of eye that perceives whimsy in issues of mortality, it’s amusing in several ways. There are thoughts one can entertain about the place if one is so inclined. For example, the idea that the place only really exists because its management was somehow able circumvent labour laws by pilfering ideas from first year engineering students, asking them to come up with a hundred and one ways to make a person spew the gnarly milkshake of fudge cake and masala fries festering in their digestive tract. Amongst the mass of the whirligigs and doodads there exists a colossal, rusting Ferris wheel bleeding paint chips, a dodgem enclosure complete with a creaky, corroded electrified ceiling, and a rocket roundabout that produces a centrifugal force so great that it’s a miracle one’s retinas are still attached by the end of the ride. Perhaps the place houses some sort of clandestine eugenics program, designed to cull and exterminate those reckless enough to take their chances on the attractions. Suggestive of such, the tickets, as the booth clerks hand them to you, read the amount of credits that can be redeemed against rides, which incur varying tariffs, and are each inscribed with the footnote “Ride At Your Own Risk.”
Ride at your own risk, while a sobering reflection of the institution’s lack of confidence in the integrity of its own architecture, as well as a casual abdication of responsibility, is also a sentiment that can be expanded to apply perfectly to Lahore’s increasingly shambolic road system and its users. Platoons of motorcyclists ride out on huge three lane roads, wife and children in tow on their flimsy seventy cc Honda CDs and Suzuki Sprinters with the side mirrors removed and not much more than a prayer between passenger and tarmac. You’ll see three types of cars; Honda Citys, Toyota Corrolas and a selection of dinky Suzukis. This narrow selection for the roadside sightseer comes about as a result of government subsidies for these few manufacturers to set up assembly lines within the country, taking a cut of the profits while imposing exorbitant import tax on competing brands. Interspersing the monotony are cars, vans and rickshaws adorned with advertisements, personal slogans, and the unfortunately increasingly infrequent sightings of the many varieties of painted and ornamented trucks and buses with chains trailing from the rear bumper, painted in a kaleidoscopic mélange of primary colours and inscribed with inscrutable catchphrases. Vehicles are rigged with any combination of a selection of anti-theft devices, yet are unsurprisingly devoid of basic safety features such as seatbelts and airbags; features that, within the prevailing code of the highway, are seen as the accoutrements of the incompetent. The resulting menagerie resembles nothing so much as some sort of inner city demolition derby, interspersed here and there by a wholly weird selection of peacock-plumed personal effects. Here, the one rule of the road is to look out for your self.
In determining what would be a good springboard from which to dive into discussions of the road system’s shortcomings, one is stupefied by the abundance of choice. There’s institutionalized apathy towards road safety, awful civic planning, bad behavioural habits inculcated over a lifetime driving in the city, and the way the road system is built with the expectation of egregious and repeated user error, consisting mostly of methods to circumvent the inability to read, failure of memory in things as expectedly ingrained as the way to one’s own place of residence, non-existant visuospatial awareness and lack of basic survival instincts. The epidemic attention deficit crossbred with a not so much itchy, as furiously inflamed accelerator foot is enough to irritate, but what really characterises driving in Pakistan is the wholesale replacement of every method of highway communication with the car horn.
There is little understanding that the structure of the roads themselves often plays a prime role in moderating and influencing user behaviour, and in no part of Lahore is this better exemplified in the new layout of what used to be the Kalma Chawk. The Chawk used to be a simple roundabout circling a monument which is now consigned to the Lahore Museum warehouses, and in its place is a bustling, colossal intersection – the busiest in the city, supposedly constructed to better manage the chaotic traffic flow in the city’s busiest zone. An admirable intention in theory, but the ambitions of Lahore’s civic planners is rarely matched by their foresight, or indeed, ability to actually plan.
Approaching the intersection stop lights from the direction of Liberty market or Cantt via the Jinnah flyover, one is theoretically capable of continuing on one of three of the intersection’s limbs – four if you include the inevitable necessity for a large proportion of the road users to realise they’ve come the wrong way, and take a u-turn. Cutting a line through, to divide the intersection onto eight parts, is the city metro service, which will occasionally plough through the centre, providing its own unique hazards.
You might be asking yourself whether this seems an unduly harsh critique, an attempt to hanker for the bleaching of a city’s colourful character and free and loose style. Still, consider the precariousness inherent in an intersection with four inlets. Perhaps it would likely still be manageable almost anywhere but Lahore, with its euphemistically entitled “load shedding,” on an hourly basis, so named perhaps to give the impression that hourly, hour-long blackouts are there to rid the people of the egregious burden of electricity. In reality, it should have been properly assumed that running such a road system without the aid of traffic lights would be comical at best and disastrous at worst. In the hours when the city’s lights are out, the attempt to keeps its citizens flowing through the concrete veins is managed by traffic wardens, standing, often in above forty degree summer heat, tragically attired in a shade of grey that offers quite fantastic camouflage against the bitumen. All the while the imperceptible gesticulations of the warden are trying to direct you on your merry way, the very real possibility of death presides in the form of unheeding oncoming traffic and the pendulous swath the buses cut through the centre.
If any of the foregoing is amusing, it’s because of our distance from the reality. The tragedies of the choices made are that, in 2013, the city of Lahore saw over one and a half thousand road deaths – a number that seems larger when you consider that the proportion of the city with access to vehicles is a small fraction of what you would expect in developed countries.