In Papua New Guinea, today as in the past, most people make their journeys by foot or, if they are in an area of rivers and waterways, by canoe. These simple facts can sometimes be forgotten by those developmentalists and transport planners who seem only to be able to think about capital-intensive projects such as airports and highways when they agonise about the lack of ‘infrastructure’ in the country.
A transport infrastructure does exist in the country. It is an infrastructure of walking tracks and waterways. These tracks go from house to house, from a house to its vegetable garden or plantation, from one cluster of houses to another, and from village to village. Walking tracks connect villages with market places and larger towns. In the towns, walking tracks cut through the back ways to make shorter, more convenient journeys out of longer ones. Out in the country, long-distance trails, leading over mountain ranges between mighty rivers, provided the walking and waterway routes for traders carrying goods between the inland areas and the coast.
Many of the tracks are in daily use. Men, women and children pass sure-footed over the soft or rugged ground. The gradients can be steep. People go to church along these walking tracks. Children go to school. Women are the main load carriers. Always with a bilum, they bring firewood down from the forests, taking produce to and from the gardens. Physical anthropologists have said that women’s skulls can sometimes be distinguished from men’s by a groove at the front, the result of carrying heavy loads. Easing this load could be a main aim of transport planners.
Motor transport and motor roads are not necessarily the best solution.The statistics on car ownership and per capita income suggest that planners should start to think in a different way about road transport – and, indeed, about air transport – in Papua New Guinea. For the foreseeable future, travel in motor vehicles and flights on planes will be only an occasional experience for many of the citizens of this country.
When a road is cut through an area, sometimes on the route of an old walking track, it is engineered for vehicles, not walkers. While the hard surface, unlike tracks, may remain dry after rain, the experience of walking on roads is often more tedious. In fact, anyone walking for any distance on main roads feels alienated and ill at ease, only too aware that they are not riding in a car or truck. Roads can also be dangerous places, full of strangers. The walker may sometimes wish for the clock to be put back.At the same time, the people have transport needs. Their daily journeys pass over streams that need bridges and along tracks that could be improved. Rivers and lakes could benefit from permanent jetties, as well as ferries and taxi canoes. In the islands, more boats would make sense. On flat land, bicycles are an inexpensive form of transport that could be encouraged.
When a new road is the appropriate solution, smaller roads are more desirable as well as cheaper and a network of small roads more desirable still. Highways leading straight to urban centres tend to drain all the young people out of an area as fast as they drain the treasury’s coffers. Networks of local roads would strengthen community links. That would be a truly useful infrastructure.