Amravathi: Giving Andhra A 'Smart' Capital
Six suggestions which must be heeded to if Amravathi is to be developed as an ideal smart city.
The pace of urbanisation in India is increasing. We have a lot of investment being pumped into urban development programs. Modi’s Smart Cities Initiative and AMRUT urban missions will see investments exceeding 50,000 crore rupees going into India’s cities. Meanwhile, the state of Andhra Pradesh is building a new capital. “Amravathi” is being developed at a estimated cost of 20,000 crore rupees. With so much money going into urban development, what are some of the mistakes that urban planners must avoid? We take a look.
1. All that glitters is not gold
Prime Minister Modi’s proposal to build 100 smart cities has generated a lot of buzz in every industry. Companies have re-packaged their existing products with the term ‘smart’ prefixed to them. Some companies have also created dedicated ‘Smart Cities’ verticals. The market is now full of several shiny objects, and vendors are going full steam to sell their ‘smart products’, each one trying to market their product as the backbone of any smart city. CM Chandrababu Naidu is a dynamic and smart (pun not intended) leader, I am sure that the investments he makes and the ‘smart’ products he buys from vendors will be need-based. I am sure he’ll be able to differentiate between white elephants and work horses because smart cities mustn’t make dumb investments.
In hashtag language, a smart city can therefore be described as #CommonSense #CostEffective #Liveable #Sustainable rather than by #BigRoads #FullyAutomatic#SmartSensors#Bling #FlyingTrains. I am certain that Chandrababu Naidu will be flooded with offers from vendors and service providers. My only request to him is to not be the first penguin through the hole while selecting ‘smart’ solutions and products for Amravathi. The Gurgaon-Manesar driverless pod based public transport system (also knows as personal rapid transit system, or PRTS) approved by the Union government is one such example. At least half a dozen cities/townships around the world have shelved their plans to invest in PRTS and Naidu would do well to learn from these cities and go for work horses like Metro, LRT and BRT instead.
2. Basic administrative mistakes
A smart capital region like Amravathi must not make the mistakes that some other cities have been making. The age of generalists is long gone and Amravathi’s administrative body needs sector specialists for each of its divisions – be it water, waste water, electricity or maintenance. For example, having a public works/engineering department staffed with generalists is just not good enough. Similarly, the planning division must not be given the responsibility of every subject taught at planning schools. We must appreciate the fact that an Urban Planner is not an expert in Transportation Planning, a Transportation Planner is not an expert in Traffic Operations and Management, and Traffic Police are not experts in Urban Planning, Transportation Planning or Traffic Operations and Management.
Each of the aforementioned sectors require dedicated specialists, which if done, will free up Traffic Police to do what they are supposed to do – enforce traffic rules. For example, burdening Traffic Police with the responsibilities of traffic engineers has completely destroyed Bangalore’s road network. Signals are often operated at cycles (time it takes to get a green again at a light) that are as high as 300 seconds, almost twice the signal cycle lengths used in developed countries. In traffic engineering, a delay of approximately 55 seconds per vehicle is considered unacceptable and calls for mitigation measures. With 300 second signal cycles, everyone at a signal is delayed by at least 75 seconds (300/4) right from the first cycle. Long signal cycles saturate roads with so much traffic that the network spends the day playing catch up. Once the network breaks down, tax payers’ money is invested in band-aid solutions like a flyover here and a flyover there.
That’s the cost tax payers pay because the city did not hire a specialist. It is quite possible that a city may not be able to hire specialists for every department. Under such circumstances, it is best to hire consultants through an on-call contract.
Currently, there is a strong tendency among municipalities and development authorities to permit NGOs and citizen forums to provide solutions to urban problems just because they don’t charge any fees. This is where a smart city must differentiate itself from the not-so-smart cities because if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. We have seen this happening most recently with the celebrity-led activism against Mumbai’s Development Plan. That is not to say that the criticism of Mumbai’s Development Plan is unwarranted, it might well be valid, and celebrities, like the rest of us have the right to protest and express their opinions. However, allowing the general public to make decisions on behalf of specialists is a dangerous precedent which unfortunately has become the norm. Public approval is important but more important is involvement of specialists.
3. Modern cities, ancient regulations
PM Modi and CM Naidu can’t be everywhere and will rely on public officials in municipalities and development authorities to implement their vision. The current crop of public officials in-charge of reviewing and approving the Master Plan will be wary of deviating from the standard practices of their respective departments. The best of ideas can fail under the weight of antiquated codes and regulations that occupy the shelves of our government offices. This threat unfortunately manages to slip through the cracks and manifests down the road in the form of poor execution of a leader’s vision. Wanting to build a first-world smart city but not letting go of the codes written in the 80s is akin to demanding a kerosene powered BMW.
The biggest stumbling block in the path of CM Naidu’s vision for Amravathi, or PM Modi’s vision to build 100 smart cities will therefore be the ‘but-you-cannot-deviate-from-our-local-codes’ problem. They will have to ensure that the people who are given the authority to execute their vision are on the same page as the leaders themselves, and more importantly have the necessary qualifications to be in those positions of authority. The current lot in our municipalities and development authorities unfortunately have grown up doing things the old way and are unlikely to possess the ability to dispassionately evaluate 21st century ideas. This inability makes them cautious of newer ideas to a point that anything that sounds new appears radical.
While international consultants have been retained to prepare the Master Plan for Amravathi, we must appreciate that they will be constrained by local codes and regulations as they go about their task. Will they be allowed to replicate Singapore’s FSI norms? I hope they do because dense development is a key component of any smart city, something that even the MoUD has appreciated in its white paper on smart cities. Will they be allowed to propose self-sufficient mix-land use clusters centered around high capacity public transport stations? I hope they do because wasting land to create unproductive spaces is not smart or sustainable. There are many such issues that range from water and power distribution methods to fire-fighting regulations, which must be resolved using a 21st century outlook and doing that will require CM Naidu to ensure that his vision trickles down to the grass roots of government officials, both in letter and in spirit. The task for PM Modi is harder because none of the smart cities will be in his jurisdiction and he will be at the mercy of state governments and municipalities who may or may not share his vision and enthusiasm.
4. Integrated land-use and transport planning
Insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Years of road widening projects in our cities should give us enough data that makes one thing clear; widening a road is never going to be a solution to alleviate congestion. Wide roads may be a necessity but shouldn’t be seen as a solution to the problem of congestion. A Greenfield city like Amravati is positioned well to decide what urban form it wants to take. It should have freeways and boulevards, but such car-centric infrastructure should be built based on needs rather than wants. Amravati should first attempt to meet the demand for travel by reducing as many vehicular trips as possible without suppressing demand. To do this, exclusive single use zones should be avoided.
There is no land-use type that retail as a land-use type doesn’t complement. For example, a small retail store placed next to even a power plant allows employees to pick up daily need items on their way home thus reducing one vehicular trip per employee. Mixing up complementary land uses has several benefits, reducing congestion and demand for parking being the most significant of them. In denser areas, land use diversity becomes even more critical. Every apartment building/complex must have a grocery/convenience store to cater to the daily needs of residents. This is a win-win situation for everyone as residents don’t have to drive and small retailers get easy access to customers. Just one apartment complex of 300-400 houses with a convenience store has the ability to take 200-300 cars off the road and also reduces the need to provide an equal number of parking spaces that would be needed at standalone grocery/convenience stores.
5. Station-to-station public transport planning
While building a city, it is important to measure its success from the perspective of the end-users and not from that of politicians and macro-economists.For example, the Delhi Metro can be considered a big political, economic and bureaucratic success but it does have several limitation much like Delhi BRT. Both Delhi Metro and Delhi BRT seem to have been planned on a ‘station-to-station’ basis instead of being planned on a ‘door-to-door’ basis. Even Delhi Metro, by far the best rail based public transport system in the country, hasn’t given much importance to first and last mile connectivity. That it is packed to the brim during rush hours is primarily due to our socio-economic conditions. For decision makers, Delhi Metro is a great success, for a transport planner though, it reeks of low standards and complete apathy towards basic needs.
A person’s travel starts at the door and ends at the door. There is a good reason why roads are built from the gates of our houses to the gates of our work places. Why must then pedestrian access to a Metro/BRT station not be built in a similar manner? Amravathi would do well to set a trend by building a holistic transportation network, one that takes in to account the entire journey, door-to-door, instead of station-to-station and that involves giving top priority to public transport. All smart city benchmarks including the ones listed in MoUD’s concept note ignore this aspect.
Further, Amravathi must avoid overhead Metro lines unless dictated by geological constraints because they not only degrade a city’s skyline but also lead to wastage of valuable real estate. Underground rail lines provide a better alternative but they too should be built only when dictated by factors other than the comfort of car and two-wheeler users.While underground lines allow cities to maximize land utilization, like elevated stations, they too increase the door-to-door travel time for public transport users and thus negating all station-to-station travel time savings gained from using public transport. Therefore, all public transport modes should be made accessible from the street level. This option has the potential to make public transport much more accessible and efficient especially if public transport modes are given priority at signals. Station-to-station planning might have worked well for an India of the previous decade, but in the India of 2020s, the average citizen will be much more aware of his rights and much vocal in demanding basic facilities like clean, safe and efficient footpaths,cycle tracks and public transport services.Future cities must therefore factor these aspirations in their design. Like Chennai, Amravathi must pledge to build complete streets instead of roads and ensure that every travel mode gets its fair share of space.
6. Pay your bills on time
Indian public sector is notorious for not paying service providers and vendors on time and in some cases not paying at all. Some of the best companies have opted out of working in India due to our low credit worthiness and those that do work tend to charge higher fees to compensate for the delays. What we the taxpayers then get is best of what is left for a higher fee than what the best of the best would’ve charged in a business-friendly environment. A new state capital, presents a golden opportunity to change the image of the public sector. Earnestly working towards a business-friendly environment will not only lower the costs of running the city but also help it attract the best brains in the world for years to come.
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