Monday, June 1, 2009

Op-Ed: Chaotic India has an Urban Edge

- Dinesh Mohan, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

“The unprecedented urban growth taking place in developing countries reflects the hopes and aspirations of millions of new urbanites. Cities have enormous potential for improving people’s lives, but inadequate urban management, often based on inaccurate perceptions and information, can turn opportunity into disaster.”
- State of World Population 2007, UNFPA.

“I regard the growth of cities as an evil thing, unfortunate for mankind and the world, unfortunate for England and certainly unfortunate for India...It is only when the cities realize the duty of making an adequate return to the villages for the strength and sustenance which they derive from them, instead of selfishly exploiting them, that a healthy and moral relationship between the two will spring up.”
- M. K. Gandhi

Here we have two views about cities, almost reconcilable. The first by a humane visionary, and the second a consensus view of some professionals in the early 21st century including me. It is difficult to say who will be right in the “long run”, especially in light of the assertions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and their predictions about global warming. But, cities are here to stay, and I guess Gandhi’s second concern (above) will have to be taken seriously if IPCC is correct in their assessment.

For many millennia human beings had to limit their greed because excess consumption demanded more manual labour. This limited their travel, the size of house they could build, clothes they could own and food they could eat. This put a limit on the use of natural resources. The industrial revolution changed all that. Our machines provide us with ready to cook food, houses, clothes and effortless travel. This has changed the concept of needs and greed. Our world is now a place where the rich and powerful can use up huge amounts of energy to transform natural resources into objects of daily use, travel and ultimately weapons of mass destruction. The world view has changed into a belief that there are endless resources and science and technology has solutions to every emerging problem without constraint. Most of the responses to IPCC warnings have this belief as their base. But, Gandhi’s concerns refuse to go away, even if at times I find it very difficult to be a faithful follower.

Greed overpowering need is even more dominant in the domain of urban transport. Transportation planning has generally relied on the most simplistic applications of “technology solves all” paradigm. The heady experience of speed from late nineteenth century onward has dominated all thinking. Human beings had not experienced comfortable speeds greater than 5 km per hour for all of their existence as a species except in their dreams. The launch of the train, motor car and the airplane in late 19th and early 20th century changed all that. With no genetic hunches to go by, we became speed addicts and like any other addict placed all concerns secondary to the new craving. Scientific theories and models taught all over the world for a century assumed that the main objective of a trip was to ensure smooth and unlimited movement of cars and if there were any “unintended” effects like deaths, diseases and destruction of living patterns (called externalities by economists) they could be resolved by greater application of technology.

International experience

Unending problems of traffic congestion, CO2 production, accidents and pollution in every single city of the world has forced us to re-evaluate both our theories and practices. Many urban planning groups and professionals all over the world are into deep introspection. Experts like Professor Hermann Knoflacher from Vienna warn us that “Car traffic is cooling social relationships by heating up the atmosphere! Traditional transportation engineering is a discipline to maximize congestion and as a side effect damages the urban fabric and finally the city. Global warming as a consequence is inevitable.” Voices like his are not alone or new. Jane Jacobs, the legendary urban planner explains our current problems “Of course, if you have advisors that come from the West as advisors you're likely to get such a city. What American traffic engineer going to the Middle East doesn't want to make limited access highways and doesn't think in terms of wide streets and automobile capacities? They victimize American cities this way. Why won't they victimize foreign cities this way?”

These are not voices of doomsday advocates. Their concern arises from the fact that most western cities have not been able to solve the problems that we are grappling with in India. According to the latest report from the Texas Transportation Institute congestion has increased in every single urban area in the USA in the past 25 years in spite of all investments in transit and road construction. Peak time delay in urban areas increased almost threefold between 1982 and 2007. The report warns us that “One lesson from more than 20 years of mobility studies is that congestion relief is not just a matter of highway and transit agencies building big projects”. USA is not alone in this. Almost all cities in the world face severe congestion on arterial roads. During peak times car speeds average 10-15 km/h in cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, Jakarta, Tehran or Mexico City. The fact is that rich cities have not been able to reduce car use to very low levels in spite of extensive public transport infrastructure in place (See Table 1).

All the cities in included in this table (except Singapore) had matured before the onset of the twentieth century, before cars became dominant. Their structures were determined by the need for people to walk or take the tram or the train. Even they have not been able to keep car use to very low levels. These data show that the car is used for more than 40% of the trips in most cities even when public transport is available. Evidence from cities like London, Paris and New York indicates that public transport use is greater than 60% only in the small inner core where parking is very limited and roads are perpetually full. In the rest of the city car use is generally more than 60% as roads are less crowded and there is easy availability of parking. Detailed studies from these cities point out that car owners generally shift to public transport only when no parking is available at the destination and average car speeds are less than 15 km/h. This empirical evidence suggests that car use (not ownership) is low only when walking and bicycling trips also form a significant proportion of all trips in cities.

It appears that car use is encouraged when high speed entry and exit is ensured to city centres by building multi-lane wide avenues and elevated roads through the city. The classic example of the decay of American cities is given as proof of this phenomenon. Public transport use also becomes difficult when large colonies or gated communities are put in place. These neighbourhoods ensure long walking distances to public transit and discourage use. It has also been observed that when cities have very noisy roads and elevated metros, richer citizens move to quieter suburbs requiring long car commutes.

This international experience should give us some important pointers. All urban transportation policy reports prepared by consultants in India assume that car use can be reduced just by providing more pubic transport facilities and assert that if their prescriptions are followed 70-80% of the trips would then be taken by public transit. The fact is that no city in the world has accomplished this feat! Further, car use as a proportion of all trips is so low in India that only very innovative thinking and practices may reduce growth in personal transport trips. In the richest cities of India, Mumbai and Delhi, recent estimates suggest that car trips constitute less than 10% of all trips. In all other cities this proportion would be lower. Additionally, the share of public transport is in these two cities is certainly higher than most of the cities in Europe or North America. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine how car and motorcycle use can be contained as we get richer if the international experience is anything to go by. Obviously, business as usual and copy-cat emulation of rich cities is not going to help.

. . .

The way forward in the face of global warming

What does sustainable transport mean for us? At a fundamental level it requires less energy consumption. The choices available are: low emission vehicles, alternative fuels, fewer trips, shorter trips, more use of public transport instead of private vehicles, and maximising the number of walking and bicycle trips. Obviously, all options will have to be pursued for maximum gain. But, we will have to establish priorities on our political agenda as the shift is not going to be easy or painless both socially and technologically. Let us examine each option briefly here.

At present our policy makers are putting the maximum stress on low emission vehicles and alternative fuels. This is horribly short-sighted. For the next twenty years there is no hope of huge reductions in CO2 primarily through low emission vehicles because the small gains will be more than offset by the rising number of vehicles and longer trip lengths. We know that as fuel consumption reduces people travel more and end up using more fuel. Production of biofuels has already become controversial internationally because of rising food prices. In a food and water short India, this is going to be even more difficult. Most international experts do not see biofuels as a solution in India. Even vehicles driven on electricity are not CO2 efficient because thermally produced electricity produces more CO2 (including transmission losses, etc.) than diesel/petrol powered vehicles. And, this does not include the negative effects of the huge amounts of fly ash associated with electric power. Even in public transport an efficiently run bus system produces about half to two-thirds the CO2 per passenger than a metro rail system. This is not to suggest that we should not have low emission vehicles, we must, and sooner than later. But, it will not be the main stay for a sustainable transport system.

Fewer trips, shorter trips, more use of public transport instead of private vehicles, and maximising the number of walking and bicycle trips has to be the priority, and it has a lot to do with how we develop our cities and streets. Now we know that no matter how many roads we build and how wide they are they always get filled up with vehicles. The number of vehicles people own is always more than road space available as evidenced by road conditions in small towns of India to car and road based cities like Los Angeles in USA. Therefore, vehicle emissions in a city are directly proportional to the area of road space in a city. The higher the percentage of road space and more the number of elevated transportation corridors in a city more the pollution and CO2 emissions. This also applies to one way and signal free roads. These roads force people to travel longer distances and keep their vehicles on roads for longer times. For example, my neighbour used to get out of his house, turn right on the main road and go 2 km to his office. Now all the turns have been blocked, he has to turn left, go 2 km to the next major junction and then make a U-turn to travel 4 km more to his office. Instead of 2 km, now his daily office trip is 6 km!

Public transport will only be used by choice if it is safe to walk and cross the road to take the bus. Provision of very safe roads then becomes a pre-requisite for promoting public transport and hence cleaner air. In a hot country the access trip to the bus must be less than 5-10 minutes away,or less than 500 m. This means that no city block can be more than 800-1,000 m long. At present many of our neighbourhoods and gated communities are larger than that. This discourages public transport use. The short walk must be safe from crime also. This can be ensured only if there are shops and street vendors on the road. So mixed land use, and intensely so, becomes imperative.BUs use in hot climates can become a mode of choice if all buses are air conditioned. An air conditioned bus only adds half a rupee per trip over its life time.

How do we ensure fewer and shorter trips? Rich and highly qualified people find it more difficult to find work close to home than those less qualified or poorer. Therefore, poor people should not be forced take long trips by moving them to the periphery. Short trips for most residents of the city can be enabled by policy. Poor neighbourhoods should be allowed to exist cheek by jowl with rich ones and all should be less than a sqkm in area. Small shops, restaurants, hospitals and businesses have to be an integral part of residential areas to make all this possible.

If the above conditions are met then you can have dedicated bus and bicycle lanes on all major roads of a city. A typical arterial road being two car lanes, one dedicated bus and bicycle lane each, a 2 m pedestrian path and a 1 m tree line in each direction. Such a road can move at least 35,000 persons in each direction at peak time. If such roads exist every 0.8 -1 km all over the city you have adequate capacity for moving people. Such a road does not have to more than 45 m wide.

This is the way forward for a sustainable transport option. Our cities are ready for it. Many of these options are present “illegally” already. We have to recognise them as solutions and not problems as we currently do. Unless we re-think our plans for flyovers, wider roads, gated communities, “slum” removal, and elevated transport corridors, our cities will turn out to be “warmer” than we can tolerate.

For the complete paper as published by the Journal Civil Society -

To contact the author:
Dinesh Mohan, PhD -
Professor and Coordinator
Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme
WHO Collaborating Centre
Indian Institute of Technology Delhi
Room 808, 7th Floor Main Building
Hauz Khas, New Delhi 110016

Print this article