Connecting people to cities

The Hindu - Bangalore, 4 April, 2014
 
 
'Only an integrated development of cities with transport can infuse discipline in urban spaces'. People tend to travel more when economies do well and living standards improve. Whatever election rhetoric might have us believe, the last decade has seen phenomenal rise in travel demand across the country. There could be argument over this demand being limited to certain sections with disposable incomes, but the fact remains that not much thought has been given to put in place a transport policy that could take care of the needs of the entire populace.
 
Last year 15 million vehicles were sold in India. The amount spent on new vehicles was of the order of Rs. 3.50 lakh crore. The Government of India spent Rs. 75,000 crore on roads. Another Rs. 7-8 lakh crore were spent on fuels to run the vehicles. Cumulatively, the transport sector expenditure was of the order of Rs. 12 lakh crore. But a quick reckoning reveals that most expenditure has been incurred on moving cars rather than people.
 
Worrying picture
 
J.P. Gupta, Commissioner of Transport, Government of Gujarat, says the sectoral pattern of expenditure gives a worrying picture of priorities the nation has followed. He says a car needs 24 sq. m of space for parking. “If an individual parks his car at three places during the space of a day, he engages 70 sq. m of space. Can the nation on a trajectory of urbanisation afford this luxury?” he questions.
 
Sixty two percent of people in Gujarat live in cities. Karnataka already has 39 per cent of its population living in urban areas. It is therefore necessary to assess what kind of behaviour is being incentivised and what kind of behaviour is being punished. Look, for instance, at the case of Karnataka where, according to V. Manjula, Transport Commissioner, Department of Urban Land Transport (DULT), buses comprise seven per cent of the total 12 million vehicles in the State but move 70 per cent of the travelling public. Luckily, Karnataka has one of the best public transport systems among the Indian cities, notwithstanding the chaos seen on Bangalore’s main thoroughfares.
 
The participants in the second national conclave of ‘ConnectKaro’ that concluded in Bangalore* recently were unanimous that transport policies cannot be decided in isolation of the urban development. That it has not happened so far, or has left huge gaps in coordination between various stakeholders wherever it has happened, needs to be addressed.
 
An excuse
 
Ashwin Mahesh, a former NASA scientist and Urban Research Strategist at the office of Urban Affairs for the Karnataka Government, says most planners accuse unwieldy urban sprawl and unprecedented growth for things going haywire. He dubs this an excuse. “The Government has the capacity to gather data about the future growth of the city from building approvals issued by the BBMP, or power and water connections being sanctioned by the Bescom and the BWSSB. Growth could be configured beforehand and transport planning could be aligned with it,” he asserts. If cities have to retain their economic efficiency, urban planning has to be integrated with transport. Laxity on the score leaves the cities congested.
 
According to Dario Hidalgo, who specialises in transport engineering and guides transport planning around developing cities, 10 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of most countries is lost in congestion. Hidalgo, who also guides the EMBARQ Network’s international team of transport engineers, says that gathering community support, creating technical teams, allocating funds to sustainable transport and capturing trends were keys to bringing about a paradigm shift in urban growth in the developing world. Madhav Pai, Director of EMBARQ India, concurs with Hidalgo and says that challenge in India “is to connect people to cities.”
 
Key elements
 
While inevitability of emphasis on good and sustainable public transport is finding the realisation all across the country, safety and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) of cities have emerged as two key elements in connecting people with public transport. India registered 140,000 deaths in road accidents in 2012. More than half of these accidents involved two-wheelers. J.P. Gupta suggests that entry-level barriers are essential to infuse discipline and recommends stringent measures while issuing permits for vehicles and licence for driving. He even recommends entry-level tests for the purpose.
 
Stringent testing is now a part of a new programme launched in 2010 called ‘Swarnim’ in Gujarat wherein a completely automated test track and improved licensing system has begun in 17 districts. He says 80 per cent of the private buses on the country’s highways are without permits and stresses the need for a regulator for the transport sector.
 
Similarly, in order to make the mass transit systems (be they Metro or BRTS) sustainable, the cities need to opt for Transit Oriented Densification along the tracks or thoroughfares. Certain amount of restriction on cars, higher parking fees along these corridors, raising the green cover on the sidewalks and possibly induction of public bike-share systems are considered integral to such a scenario. Of late, Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA) has initiated some measures in this direction. According to Bimal Patel, President, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, who specialises in Land Use Planning, the AUDA has raised FSI limits from 1.8 to 5.4 in the city’s commercial hubs as part of the TOD.
 
Karnataka is also catching up on the trend. According to Manjula, the State Government is shifting focus to development of mass transit systems. A public bike-sharing system will soon be in place in Bangalore. Parking policies are being chalked out for nine cities in the State and suggestion to introduce congestion pricing are on the anvil.
 
The Government is developing a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) between Hubli and Dharwad that lie 22 km apart. Yet the Government has to tackle issues such as parking in big cities where number of cars have gone up phenomenally.
 
According to P.N. Sreenivasachary, Principal Secretary, Government of Karnataka, Bangalore has 13,000 km of roads and on an average working day, 30 per cent of the space under roads is used for parking.
 
Pedestrians ignored
 
Human behaviour is just one aspect of public safety. The city planning has increasingly ignored the pedestrians. Urban thoroughfares are unkind towards the disabled, those walking with headloads, supported with sticks or on wheelchairs. Seamless mobility is an unfulfilled dream for the sidewalk-users. Most sidewalks are occupied by hawkers, peddlers, beggars, or are target of constant surgeries by utilities. Inter-modal transit (for instance from bus to Metro, or from suburban trains to private vehicles) poses formidable hassles. Engineering of roads too has been a deficient aspect of urban planning. It is pointed out that the road junction designs need to be contextual rather than formulaic in India as road users have varied needs and roads have varied topography.
 
Problem spots
 
Binoy Mascarenhas, Manager, Urban Transport at EMBARQ, says although the junctions take up only a fraction of the road space, they typically account for more than half of all road accidents. Besides these, potholes, debris, poor signages, crossings, U-turns, poor lighting and visibility and skewed angles at which roads meet, compound the traffic scene in Indian cities.
 
ConnectKaro was organised jointly by EMBARQ India, World Resources Institute and DULT, Karnataka.
 
The author can be reached at maqsiraj@gmail.com.