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Air Pollution and Political Reform in Iran

By EV World Editorial Staff

Reforming Iran's political system will be hard, as President-elect Hasan Rowhani well knows, but so is solving his capital's poisonous transportation system and here, gratefully, serious progress is being made.

Iranians went to the polls this past weekend and elected a moderate cleric as their new president by an overwhelming majority. In a race that had been narrowed down from an original field of 100 candidates to just six, Hasan Rowhani took 50.7% of the vote. His nearest rival and favorite of "hard-line establishment" - to quote Time - the current mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, garnered only 16%.

With this unquestionable victory - unlike the 2009 election that resulted in mass protests after another reformist candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an election many regarded as having been rigged in Ahmadinejad's favor - Iran appears posed for possible transformation. Though as Middle East scholar Geneive Abdo points out, "A reform-minded president has been elected, but he still has to survive in a system that existed before the election."

According to Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, the new president served for 15 years as the "top national security consigliere to the president," resigning in 2005 when the right-wing firebrand Ahmadinejad won election.

While most knowledgeable observers of the political goings on in Iran appear to be pragmatically hopefully that Rowhani's election reflects a change of mood among the Iranian population, it remains to be seen what he can accomplish.

Abdo put it this way:

"If you want to be cynical about it, Rowhani is ... just a smiling face to the West."

Smiling or not, he clearly has his hands full from dealing with Iran's direct involvement in the ongoing civil war in Syria, to a crumbling economy hurt by economic sanctions, to a capital city with the highest traffic death toll per capita in the world and among the worst air quality anywhere on the planet.

Paradoxically, it was his losing rival, Dr. Ghabilaf, who has overseen Tehran's efforts to solve its transportation problem and the deadly air pollution this sprawling megacity of 8.2 million people has created. The problem is so severe that it's estimated 27 people die every day from air pollution related diseases; and one government official admitted in 2011 that air quality was good a total of only three weeks out of the year.

Tehran's problems stem from two key events: the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 and the subsidization of energy costs to the tune of an estimated at $84 billion annually. With the promise of affordable public housing and cheap energy, refugees from the conflict zone along the border with Iraq, flooded into the capital at a rate of 100,000 annually. A city designed for 3 million more than doubled in size, while cheap gasoline spurred the sale of hundreds of thousands of automobiles with virtually no pollution controls.

At the time, Iran could afford it. It sits atop the fifth largest oil reserves on the planet and the second largest reserves of natural gas. The result, writes CityFix

"…has been severe traffic and pollution, while a great number of public spaces and open spaces have been demolished in the wave of freeway building that occurred as the city government played catch-up in the late 1980s and early ’90s."

Fortunately, calmer heads in Iran began looking for solutions starting as early as 1998 when the first heavy commuter line (Line 5) went into service. It has since been followed by additional heavy and light-rail (tram) lines totaling 77 km (47 mi.).

Together, they service an estimated 17 million passenger trips per day, operating both above and below ground. Again, the cost is heavily subsidized, each ride costing the equivalent in US dollars of 10¢ (1,000 Iranian Rials). This is, reports the Sustainable Cities Collective, cheaper than comparable fares from Dehli, India to Caracas, Venezuela. The grayscale photo in the masthead is one of Tehran's underground Metro stations, one of nearly 70 in the system at present. The government aims to have a Metro station within, at most, 800 meters (0.5 mi.) of residents' homes and workplace; and within 600 meters in the central city's car-restricted zone. Tehran is one of the few cities to enact congestion zone charges, following London and Stockholm's example.

Fares on the city's new Bus Rapid Transit system, which currently runs 150 km, are equivalent to 2¢ in US money and 200 Rials in Iranian currency. The BRT provides some 1.8 million passenger trips daily. BRT and Metro fares now have been integrated similar to London's Oyster fare system. A single pass entitles the rider to travel on both systems.

But public transit still only accounts for about 32% of trips around the capital. Private cars, minibuses and shared taxis comprise some 60% of trips, but here too the country is making progress with an estimated 2.86 million natural-gas fueled vehicles on its roads, served by some 3,000 CNG refueling stations, making Iran the world leader in this class. Of course, a significant reason has to do with the fact that the nation has lots of natural gas and few oil refineries. It's cheaper to use natural gas than to import refined gasoline. Here too, costs are subsidized with commuters paying less than a penny a mile to get to and from work.

Finally, in 2009, the city introduced its first public bicycle share program, which costs the equivalent of $2 a year to join and enables rides to use the bikes for up to 4 hours.

From an urban planner's perspective, Tehran is setting the example for a more sustainable city, so much so that it was even nominated 2011 by the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy for its Sustainable Transport Award. It lost out that year to Guangzhou, in China.

Still, Iranians have a lot of ground to make up in terms of efficiency. States Wikipedia's "Energy In Iran" entry

Iran is one of the most energy intensive countries of the world with per capita energy consumption 15 times that of Japan and 10 times that of European Union. Also due to huge energy subsidies, Iran is one of the most energy inefficient countries of the world, with the energy intensity three times higher than global average and 2.5 times the middle eastern average.

These and other challenges will confront the new President, who while considered open to friendlier U.S. relations and is considered a 'pragmatic moderate' is also, Abdo points out, beholden to the Ayatollah. Still, this weekend's election might suggest a glimmer of light at the end of a long, dark subway tunnel of political brinksmanship.

 

Times Article Viewed: 6850
Originally published: 17 Jun 2013

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