Rich or poor, north or south, all people need water, food, shelter, education, health services, transport and communication systems, security and economic viability (personal and national).
The detail and the degree varies, but these are the basic and universal drivers of voters’ wish lists…and hence candidates’ promises. Always. If people lack any of these, they want it.
If they have it, they want it to be good. If it’s good, they want it to be better. All else is symptoms and sub-plots of how and by whom these essential qualities might be achieved.
What differs is which of these core issues is most urgent.
The computation of that is never simple. Each individual life is itself a matrix of problems and preferences. Multiply that by 50 million (often conflicting) personal opinions and situations and you are unlikely to get a clear answer. What you might get is a trend of sound bites that add up to a pattern.
One such pattern emerging from voter polls in recent weeks (amid many other and perhaps weightier issues) was the surprisingly high number of times voters led their responses with a wish for “better roads.”
Nothing right or wrong about that. The availability, cost and quality of mobility is unquestionably life-crucial to all. That pattern was evident. But precisely what is a “better” road? In what specific way do roads need to be improved to deliver the most life-changing benefits, and primarily for whom –private motorists, commercial transporters, commuters, shoppers, businesses, bus passengers, boda-boda bikers, cyclists, pedestrians, donkey carts?
What makes a road better for some of those cadres could make it worse for others. Should policy makers prioritise the number of roads, or their alignment, their width, their surface, signs and markings, drainage, usage, traffic segregation, safety, lane capacity and flow speeds…or what?
Is the main problem that we do not spend enough budget on this element of infrastructure, or that the money we do assign is ill-spent?
Are the unsatisfactory consequences primarily the result of poor design or construction or maintenance or administration... Perhaps or wayward use by substandard vehicles and incompetent drivers?
As an example, speed bumps are neither innately good nor bad. It depends on how many there are, where they are, what shape they are and more than a few other factors. Such questions are not born of idle curiosity.
If policy and planning are to deliver “better roads” – with finite resources and in the face of so many urgent and important wish lists for other things – it is essential that they know what a “better road” means.
Back to the basics. Everyone, everywhere, always wants good roads. What the planners need to know, and the pollsters did not ask, is why, in what way and for whom. Only when we know that can we cut our suit to fit our cloth; only then can we prioritise not only what we do but what we don’t do in working to improve our road transport system; and only then can we hold the designers and managers of the solution accountable. “Better” needs more than sound bites and promises.