The problem

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BEYOND a critical threshold, higher speeds rather than reduce travel time only add to distance. A ‘speed-stunned imagination’ in thrall of the perceived virtues of an ‘acceleration of mobility’ only contributes to an industrialization of transportation. Years back, in a prescient booklet, Energy and Equity, philosopher Ivan D. Illich warned that the shift to non self-powered modes of transportation like the motor car not only increases the intensity of energy use, and thus the costs of transport, but enhances inequity between those who can access high speed travel and those who cannot. Moreover, he pointed out that such imagination helps shape policy and directs investment in ways that affect geographical and social landscapes – urban settlements transform into city sprawl, increasing distances between home and workplace; cities are forced to allocate greater space to roads and parking; as mobility patterns change we encounter issues of rush hour traffic and congestion and so on. Very wide roads divide neighbourhoods, promote invisibility and thus crime, and make life difficult for children and the elderly. Finally, the greater time spent on roads, getting to work or entertainment, affects family life and social relations.

Over the last three decades since Illich’s contribution, the city-scape has only changed for the worse, nowhere more than in countries like India, fixated on aping the old models of urbanism and transport from the West, even as ironically many of the western nations have begun to move towards more human-scale cities and mobility modes. It is instructive that as western, particularly European, cities have begun privileging ecologically benign modes such as bicycles, increased zones exclusive to pedestrians within the cities and changed fiscal policies to encourage public over private transport, our city and transport planners seem to be moving in a reverse direction. This despite the fact that even in cities like Mumbai and Delhi more than forty per cent of the people walk or bicycle to work. No wonder, our cities, more so the larger ones, are becoming unlivable, with high traffic injury and fatality rates, choked by traffic congestion and forcing people to spend more time at higher costs to cover needed distances. Moreover, we have added to our health burden by creating new problems associated with greater ambient pollution and stress.

Most city dwellers would have no difficulty with this description. It anything, they could add to the list of problems created by inefficient, unimaginative and iniquitous city and transport planning. Be it the lack of space for pedestrians and cyclists, the lack of investment in affordable public transport systems, the mindless ‘excitement’ with flyovers and expressways which only bunch traffic as also increase incidence of accidents resulting from higher speeds – and the list can be expanded – it does appear that the social imagination governing urban planning revolves primarily, if not exclusively, around the interests of car owners who constitute less than fifteen per cent of the families in the richest cities.

Is this because our planning and implementation systems accommodate only the elite? Or is it also that we have insufficiently invested in research which could help address our specific problems? For instance, given extant city patterns, how do we plan for a multiplicity of transport modes – from walking and cycling, rickshaws, carts, motorized vehicles to transit systems be they bus rapid transit systems, para-transit or shared taxis? And these for both goods and people. Can all these be simultaneously accommodated in the road space available? What about the fact that each of these different modes not only operate at different speeds but reflect very different mindsets about the city. All this raises complex questions about who and what should be permitted where and at what times. Similar issues come up in city planning as elite residents manipulate land use patterns, sites for residence, work and commerce such that less fortunate city dwellers are forced to crowd into decrepit settlements or move further away from city centres and rely on less privileged modes of transport, if not live and work on the roads.

None of the above is, however, inevitable. It is possible for our planners and decision-makers to learn from experience, and not only from more prosperous locations in the West, to re-imagine the city and introduce transport systems that are more friendly to commuters. Bogota in Columbia is by no account a rich city in a rich country. Yet, over the last couple of decades, under an imaginative and socially-concerned leadership it has been able to introduce bus-based mass transport, increase public space for use of pedestrians and cyclists, and thus offer a model of a more human-scale and friendly city. Other cities that have made innovative changes include Barcelona, Copenhagen, Berlin in Europe, Portland in the US, Kyoto in Japan, and Curitiba in Brazil.

The crucial question is whether our decision-makers can learn to equally accommodate the needs and concerns of non-elite residents when planning for city development and learn from organic forms of city growth. It is indeed disturbing that despite constitutional provision for democratic local area governance through elected municipal councils and so on, urban planning continues to be dominated by interests representing big capital – realty investors, contractors, industrialists – with support from both the political and bureaucratic class and experts. Surprisingly, even our judiciary has fallen prey to visions of the city which squeeze out the poorer residents. Note, for instance, the spate of orders against street vendors, rickshaw pullers, informal sector industry, slum and pavement settlements, forcing the question: who are the cities for?

As important as the broad philosophical concerns are issues related to design – of vehicles, of roads and settlements. Many of our complaints about antisocial commuter behaviour can be traced to faults in design. High floor buses make it difficult to get on and off, increasing chances of accidents; wrong location of bus stops makes bus use difficult, free left turns at junctions make it impossible for pedestrians to cross safely, and so on. This issue of Seminar is an attempt to open out the discussion on the shape our cities are acquiring, and hopefully influence policy choice.