How colonialism causes traffic trouble

4 September 2018
Part of our 'Thinking outside the box' series
Economic structuralism may explain the stunted growth of countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Nina Verzosa explores how vestiges of colonialism may have impacted traffic safety in these rapidly globalising regions.

Some structuralists employ the core-periphery theory to support claims that the current woes of developing countries, which are considered as part of the periphery, are determined by their previous (colonisation) and current (globalisation) relationship with the core. I will use this theory in this think piece to ponder on three aspects where vestiges of colonialism may have impacted traffic safety in rapidly globalising LDCs.


A study by Acemoglu, et al. (2001) found that institutions formed by colonizers persist. The study divides the types of colonialism into two categories: exploitative and settler colonies. The study argues that exploitative colonialism mostly practiced by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, did not produce good institutions, unlike in settler colonies where a capitalist structure, justice system, and property rights were established.  How is this historical occurrence correlated to traffic safety today?

Developed countries that experienced settler colonialism such as Australia and the United States have lower fatality rates per 100,000 persons as compared to LDCs who have undergone exploitative colonialism. The latter has recorded high road fatalities, with some LDCs having more than 25 deaths per 100,000 persons (World Health Organisation [WHO], 2013). Of course, there are endogenous factors that contribute to traffic safety in LDCs. Nevertheless, it could be argued that institutions established during the period of colonisation primarily have a path-dependent effect on the development of facilities which has traffic safety implications.

For instance, the Laws of the Indies, which was instituted by King Phillip II of Spain, mandated that all colonies of Spain should follow a uniform guide in the construction of infrastructure and political administration. One of the requirements of this law was that cities in all colonies should follow a gridiron street pattern around a plaza.

Hence, some of the cities in the former colonies of Spain, particularly the capital cities, such as Lima (Peru), Manila (Philippines) and Mexico City (Mexico), follow a gridiron street network. The gridiron street network may be conducive to non-motorise activities as streets are well-connected, allowing pedestrians to use different routes to reach their destination directly at the shortest possible time.

However, with the sharp increase in motorisation in LDCs but scarce resource towards traffic improvements, the gridiron street network is less adept to intermodal overcapacity and can be more susceptible to road crashes between motorise and non-motorise users. A study by Rifaat et al. (2011) found that compared to gridiron street pattern, the likelihood of a road crash occurring in locations with a warped parallel, loops and lollipops, and mix shapes road patterns is lower.

With non-motorised transport and public transit still being the dominant modes of transportation in LDCs coupled with the motorisation, pedestrians and bicyclist remain to be at risk in this inherited street pattern. Since street networks are difficult to dismantle, former colonies with a traditional gridiron street pattern are left to deal with its safety consequences on their own.

Investment allocation

Government activities during the colonial period are still reflected in the current practices of governments in LDCs. A study by Huillery (2009) examined French investments in health, infrastructure, and education during the colonization period in West Africa and found that most of the investments were directed to the same geographical recipients since the colonization period.

One reason for the occurrence of such phenomena is that the areas where most investments were placed during the colonial period have the advantage of attracting more residents early on, and most of these early residents have capitalized on the opportunities during the colonial period (that is, existing educational establishments). A consequence of this is the formation of local elites.

Throughout the years, these areas have accumulated human, financial, and manufacturing capital that takes advantage of the economies of scale, reducing the marginal cost of building additional infrastructure and facilities. Such practice drains off some of the investments that could have been distributed to other areas of the country. This includes resources allocated for improving traffic safety.

Case in point: the region with the highest number of road crash-related deaths in the Philippines is Region V or the Bicol Region (Department of Public Works and Highways, 2011). Yet, most of the transport investments and traffic safety initiatives are centred in the regional capital, Metro Manila, which not coincidentally was the capital of the Spanish East Indies during the colonial period.


A highly efficient traffic enforcement mechanism is the key to implementing successful policies. Unfortunately, LDCs continue to struggle with this as exemplified by the pervasiveness of corruption, which has colonial roots. In particular, the “encomienda” system established during the Spanish Colonial period has paved the way to the formation of local elites who continued the practice of demanding labour and fees from natives long after the system was abolished (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012).

Such practice perpetuates in traffic enforcement today. According to the traffic safety enforcement score calculated by the WHO (2015), most developed countries in the Asia Pacific recorded a high score (above 7) in enforcing the national speed limit, motorcycle helmet laws, and seatbelt laws. On the other hands, LDCs that have undergone exploitative colonialism received a low score that ranges from 1 to 5.

These three issues tied to LDCs colonial past require a heterogeneous response. That is, traffic safety policies in LDCs should be uniquely based in their existing capacity and road user needs rather than caving into external pressures for a “globalised policy”. Globalisation in a way is a new form of colonialism by which the current and future policies of periphery countries are dictated by the actions and policies of the core countries or of the international community. The pressure to compete globally also forces LDCs to adopt transport policies that are perceived to allow them to swiftly develop economically without considering its long-term consequences to the low-income population.

Kaltheier (2002) argues that LDCs’ focus on Western-led motorise transport policies which push for road expansion projects and motorise transport improvements to boost economic growth has further worsened the safety of non-motorise road users in LDCs. The intention here is not to deny the big role that core countries and the international community play in supporting LDCs but rather a call for them to optimise aid and support by understanding traffic safety issues from the ground up with recognition of the LDCs’ colonial past rather than through a blanket prescription. Keeping in mind that transport policies that worked in developed countries will not necessarily translate to a success in LDCs.

  • Nina Verzosa is a researcher at the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies


  • Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., and Robinson, J. (2001). The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation, The American Economic Review, 91, 1369-1401.
  • World Health Organisation. 2013 World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Health Observatory Data Repository. Retrieved from
  • Rifaat, S., Tay, R., Perez, A. and de Barros, A. (2009). Effects of Neighborhood Street Patterns on Traffic Collision Frequency, Journal of Transportation Safety and Security, 1(4), 241-253.
  • Huillery, E. (2009). History Matters: The Long Term Impact of Colonial Public Investments in French West Africa, American Economic Journal, 1 (2), 176-215.
  • Department of Public Works and Highways. (2011). 2011 DPWH Atlas. Retrieved from
  • Acemoglu. D. and Robinson, J. (2012). Why Nation Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. New York: Crown Business
  • World Health Organisation (2015). Global Status Report on Road Safety. Retrieved from
  • Kaltheier, R. (2002). Urban Transport and Poverty in Developing Countries: Analysis and Options for Transport Policy Mapping. Eschborn, Germany: GTZ Division 44 Environment, Management, Water, Energy, Transport.