Relating parts to the whole


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THIS article discusses the organizing governance mechanisms dealing with urban transport. The problem facing transportation planners, I suggest, is one of figuring out how to combine the general and the particular, the broad and the narrow. This problem comes up in three different ways. Consider first the definition of the subject matter for planning. The broad way of understanding the topic is to recognize that one cannot talk about transportation without talking about other urban problems at the same time – above all, land use planning, affordable housing, business location, and sprawl. Even if one focuses solely on transportation, the broad way of talking about transportation is to focus not just on roads and mass transit but on taxis, walking, bicycling, cycle rickshaws and many other ingredients of the system.

The second aspect of the problem is the breadth of geography we should be focusing on when we plan: is it the neighbourhood, the ward, the city, the region, the state, the nation as a whole, or even, as with air travel, larger still? How broad, and how narrow, should we be thinking? The final aspect is the amount of participation in decision-making about the subject matter (however defined) for the geographic area (however defined). Whose voice is entitled to be heard? What role does the public-at-large – democracy – play in thinking about transportation? What role do experts play? What role do stakeholders play? And, if stakeholders play a role, who exactly are the relevant stakeholders?


The problem presented by these three questions is not that we don’t know the right answers to them. At the conceptual level, we do know the right answers to all three issues. The topic should be inclusive, not just focused on transportation. Of course, a specific focus on each element of transportation is necessary too. But these specific analyses have to be connected to each other and, then, to urban planning more generally. The geographic scope, similarly, needs to be both broad and narrow. We have to be able to think beyond the neighbourhood and the ward to the city, the region, the state and the nation – and, at the same time, understand how to organize transportation at the level of the ward, the neighbourhood, and individual streets.

Finally, transportation decisions will be illegitimate unless they respond to local residents’ needs and desires – respond, in other words, to the democratic will. But this does not mean that there isn’t a role for experts too. Of course, experts have a role. But expert decisions have to be connected to democratic decisions. In thinking about all three issues, in short, we need to be broad and narrow at the same time.


This conventional wisdom is easy to state. But, as far as I know, it is not implemented anywhere in the world. Virtually everywhere, transportation decisions are fragmented into bits – both functionally and as a matter of geography. Transportation decision-making is rarely connected to other aspects of urban planning. In fact, different aspects of transportation are run by different agencies – some of the city’s roads are subject to the jurisdictions of the city itself, and others to state or national control; buses are operated by one agency and commuter trains by another; taxis are regulated by still a different government agency. Pedestrians and bicycles are usually left out of the picture altogether.

Geographic fragmentation is equally intense. Different parts of the transportation system are allocated to the national government, to the state government, to the city, to many different specialized public corporations and agencies, and to the private sector. No one puts all these parts together. Finally, popular participation – if it exists at all – plays only an intermittent and occasional role. It appears that this fragmentation exists in India also. The multiplicity of institutions and responsibilities undermines transportation planning

There is nothing unique about the situation in India. Consider simply the organization of transportation in New York City. The two most important actors on transportation issues are the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is appointed by New York State’s governor, with only 4 of its 17 members recommended by the city; the Port Authority is appointed by two governors, without any city input.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority runs New York City’s subways and buses, along with the Long Island Railroad; the Port Authority runs the airports, PATH trains to New Jersey, and the Air Train at JFK; New Jersey Transit, appointed by New Jersey’s governor, runs its own trains and buses into New York. The Transportation Authority operates nine bridges and tunnels; the Port Authority controls other bridges and tunnels, including the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge; the New York City’s Department of Transportation controls still other bridges and tunnels, such as the 59th Street Bridge. The highways are run by the New York and New Jersey State Departments of Transportation. And the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission licenses the city’s taxis.


Transportation, you should know, is the area for which the federal government in the United States is most insistent on metropolitan planning. The problem for New York is that there are many metropolitan transportation planning bodies in the area, not just one. One deals with New York City and a few nearby New York suburbs; another deals with New Jersey; yet another deals with Connecticut. No one, starting from scratch, would devise a transport and mobility structure like this one. To declare this set-up a scandal would be a waste of time. Everyone knows it’s a scandal; it’s been a scandal for decades.

Why is transportation policy organized in this fragmented way? Why can’t we design a system that is not a scandal? The crisis facing the organization of transportation is not deciding what would be better – we know what would be better. The crisis is figuring out how to get from here to there. We don’t seem to know how to design the broad-based system we think desirable. And we don’t seem to know how to relate such a system, even if we had one, to the equally important narrower focus. We need, in other words, to figure out how to relate parts and wholes. Even more urgently, we need to figure out how to begin to head in the right direction.


I certainly cannot answer this question for Delhi, nor for any city. But here are a few initial thoughts. The crisis in transportation planning is connected to the crisis of thinking about cities generally. The fracturing I’ve been emphasizing on the issue of transportation policy occurs on every issue. To begin to address this problem, we need to organize three institutions. First, we need to organize neighbourhood-based thinking about transportation issues and about how these issues relate to others. At the same time, we need to organize city-wide and region-wide thinking about the same topics. This will require a lot of hard work at every geographic level. But we cannot even begin to discuss the matter until people think about what to do. Even harder than this thinking process, however, will be the effort to relate these conversations to one another.

There will be no consensus within any particular neighbourhood, no consensus joined by all the neighbourhoods, and no consensus between the city and the region. Therefore, there has to be an ultimate decision-maker – someone who can work out the necessary compromises. One decision-maker has to have authority over the countless agencies and departments now involved in these issues. This ultimate decision-maker should represent the largest relevant area – the region or the state.

But, to be legitimate, the ultimate decision-maker has to be constituted in a way that makes it representative of the collective voices of its constituent cities and neighbourhoods. Like a legislature, it has to be organized in a way that allows it to work out compromises between different parts of the city and region, not simply come up with its own decision based on experts or stakeholders. This means that the experts have to work at every level, not just at the top and, at the same time, democratic voices have to be heard at every level, not just at the bottom. The locals need to be taught by the experts; the experts need to be taught by the locals. Regional thinking needs to be brought down to the more local level, and all of the local levels, collectively, need to be constituent parts of the regional level. This is an organizational issue – an issue of institution building.


Implementation of such a scheme cannot happen overnight. Indeed, it has to consider more than simply transportation. But we can’t wait to set the whole process up before we begin to do something about the transportation problems we face. Perhaps it’s best, then, to begin with a single issue and try to make some progress on it. We need to organize institutions that deal at the neighbourhood, city, and regional level with this one issue – and, once they make some headway on it, expand their jurisdiction to other issues. I have no idea what the issue here in India should be. That needs to be discussed by people here. But I think the issue should be concrete – something at the level of providing safer travel to pedestrians, bicyclists and bus commuters. The task is to begin the process of relating the parts and the whole. Without that, we will have no legitimate decisions about transportation. In fact, we might have no decisions at all.