That is the only strategy that will declog our roads, cut down on pollution, make urban transport safer and our lives safer and easier.
Urban India is expected to contribute 70 per cent of India’s GDP by 2030. These are centres of wealth—the per capita income in the largest cities is much higher than the average per capita income of the country as a whole and, in some cases more than double the national average.
Sustainable urban transport planning, therefore, becomes critical to the quality of life in these towns and cities, the viability of their commercial activity, and ultimately, India’s economic growth.
This assumes even more significance in the light of Prime Minister Narendra Modi talking of creating 100 ‘smart cities’.
While there may be several different paths to provide sustainable solutions, a three-pronged strategy named Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) is probably the best real sustainable growth model, mainly because it does not depend on curtailing people’s choices but instead offers additional choices to the consumer.
Avoid, the first of the three prongs, represents policy measures that like Ayurvedic medicines take time to show effects but help address the root causes in the long run. The main goal of this strategy is to reduce or eliminate the need to drive.
Driving to work is the most unproductive use of anyone’s time. If wishes were supersonic vehicles, commuters would prefer to be transported to their office desks in the blink of an eye. While the search for such a technology continues, the next best thing is to place houses, jobs and services in close proximity of one another, so close that one needn’t have to waste time driving to work or park cars. To put it simply, this strategy promotes dense and diverse land use clusters containing housing, offices, commercial spaces and even institutional land uses such as clinics and schools, located close to one another. This results in reducing trip lengths (distances between origins and destinations) and hence brings parity between walk-trips and car-trips without having to impose penalties on car users.
Self-contained walkable communities don’t require as many parking spaces or as wide roads as sparsely populated areas. The co-location of diverse land uses makes driving a less efficient travel mode and helps unlock the value associated with non-productive spaces such as parking lots, by increasing productive built-up area. This is a win-win situation for both developers and municipalities. The former get more saleable land and the latter has fewer roadway widening projects to worry about.
Shift, the second prong, represents a combination of quick-to-implement infrastructure improvements and long-term policy measures. The main objective of this strategy is to influence (not force) a mode shift from personal vehicles to more space-efficient modes of transport such as walking, cycling and public transport.
Although there’s perfect unanimity in promoting space-efficient modes of transport, decision makers often can’t get themselves to execute modern high-capacity public transport projects. Quite often, proposals for high capacity public transport system projects are nixed or vociferously opposed by naysayers, even by NGOs that ironically want to promote public transport.
The most common argument used is that for the price of a Metro rail for example, a city could buy hundreds of buses to improve the quality of mass transit. Unfortunately, this argument is based on the flawed assumption that car users are indifferent to different modes of public transport, i.e., buses, BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), LRT (Light Rail Transit) or Metro rail. To understand why this argument is flawed, one must differentiate between the two main groups of public transport users—captive riders, those who don’t have an option but to use public transport, and choice riders, those who forego their personal vehicles to use public transport.
The decision making process of a potential choice rider depends on the generalised cost associated with the two modes and this cost includes several hard-to-quantify metrics such as comfort, dignity and reliability. Car users are highly unlikely to opt for a mode that requires them to share space with strangers and takes more time than if they were to drive their own car for the same journey. High-capacity mass transport systems like BRT or rail may or may not meet everyone’s comfort and dignity requirements, but they do make up for it by reducing travel time, a key component of the generalised cost that people often rely on, subconsciously, while choosing a mode of travel. Reduced travel time could influence some of those on the margins and thereby freeing up road space for other users.
The second argument often made against high-capacity mass transport systems is that a city doesn’t have adequate ridership (i.e. density of developments) to justify investments in rail projects. The solution: if mass transport can’t go to ‘less dense’ developments, dense developments should be created around mass transport stops, popularly known as Transit-Oriented-Developments (ToDs).
ToDs are dense and diverse developments built around transit stops of high capacity mass transit systems. A string of such ToDs would mean that most destinations in a city are located around transit stops, making journeys by public transport far more attractive than they otherwise would be. This does require massive realignment of a city’s land use clusters and hence is a long-term solution and should be included in every city’s future plans.
Until ToDs come to fruition, some infrastructure improvements can be implemented to enhance the urban public transport experience. These measures include investments in creating a region-wide network of physically segregated bicycle and pedestrian boulevards lined with trees and linear parks. Such measures will bring some much needed dignity in walking, something that is completely missing in our cities. More importantly, these measures exponentially reduce pedestrian and cyclist fatalities on our roads.
Well-maintained and continuous footpaths are almost non-existent in Indian cities and those that have footpaths aren’t maintained, with some footpaths even getting relegated to solid waste storage areas. These factors widen the gap between the convenience of walk-trips and car-trips, forcing car owners to drive instead of walk even for trips that would otherwise be undertaken on foot or via public transport. As a result, only captive transit users use public transport, while choice riders choose to drive. It is these choice riders for whom the generalised cost of public transport must be reduced to have any sustainable solution to urban congestion.
Unless these riders shift to space-efficient modes of transport, planners will continue to widen roads and build flyovers, a strategy that is akin to loosening one’s belt to cure obesity. This shift to space-efficient modes of transport however must happen voluntarily and not by imposing penalties like congestion charges.
Improve is the last prong in this strategy, and promotes Research and Development of vehicle technology aimed at enhancing fuel efficiency, reducing emissions, operating efficiency and more importantly safety. Automobile majors are making big investments to improve vehicle performance. The most fascinating of developments in the automobile R&D space is the giant strides made in Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) such as but not limited to lane departure warning, collision avoidance, night vision and pedestrian detection systems.
Some ADAS like rear view cameras are now common but what’s coming is breathtaking. Tesla, the US electric transport solutions company set up by visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk, plans to launch its first autonomous car by 2016 while Google has started the second phase of testing of its autonomous car.
Under phase 1, Google’s autonomous car, fixed with Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensors, drove almost a million miles through dense urban streets and high-speed freeways in California, with only two incidents, one when the car was being driven manually, and one when a parked Google car was rear-ended. These are mind boggling statistics and hold great promise for both the automobile industry as well as urban planners.
Urban Planners around the world wait with bated breath at the prospect of self-driving cars improving road safety, and increasing the capacity of existing roads by at least 20 per cent. But the impact on Indian roads, when the technology finally arrives, is expected to be much higher than 20 per cent since our roads operate at sub-optimal levels of capacity due to our cattle-like driving habits. Autonomous cars might well be like our famed ‘no-phone to cell-phone’ transformation over the next few decades. Fingers crossed.
Avoid-Shift-Improve holds great promise for future Indian cities, and for the future of existing cities. The question is, will we Avoid, Shift and Improve, or continue to Avoid, Deflect, Procrastinate.
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