Monday, July 27, 2015

A single public transport project cannot solve all traffic problems!

There are optimists and then there are daydreaming optimists. For daydreaming optimists, an announcement of a project is good enough to imagine that all problems will be solved. They would really believe that metro-based mass transit system would solve major traffic problems in the city. Single project solutions are not sustainable solutions for the long run. This is not to say that metro project in Ahmedabad does not have any merits. But the field of urban planning and traffic problems need a multi-starrer cast and one hero is never good enough.

Rail-based transport systems are sturdy and long lasting. They can expand their passenger carrying capacities easily and they move at great speed. They are probably the best system in moving people across cities. When it comes to intra-city travel, they have certain limitations. Metro rail will have a limited geographical spread and secondly, it is the most expensive public transport system. Which city can afford a capital cost of Rs200 crores per kilometer and then equally high operations costs in the system’s lifetime? Given the cost and infrastructure inputs, the metro rail project will only be feasible on a few corridors in a city and it will never have a good geographical spread as other systems. Which means it will have expensive tickets and it will be prohibitive to use for the low-income groups. The low-income groups are the captive public transport users and without their patronage, the metro system cannot prosper. Will the metro project try to attract the dedicated low-income commuters?

Even in cities like Delhi, where the metro have a good coverage of 190 kms or more, buses carry many more passengers than the metro. This is also true for London where the metro network is about 450 kms but the buses carry more passengers. The regular buses are always going to cover the cities well and their tickets are going to be cheaper. Buses are both competitor and complimentary services to the metro. The metro system will work well on the high-capacity segments and it will have to be integrated with the bus-based system to get benefits of the other segments. Smart cities recognise this and create public transport system that is seamlessly integrated. In London, you can use one smart card to access buses, metro, light rail, suburban rail, ferries and taxies. In Ahmedabad, we have two bus services belonging to one municipal corporation struggling to share platforms, ticketing and routes. The exclusivity of the BRTS and apathy in AMTS is hurting the passengers the most. As a result, there are more and more people encouraged to use private vehicles.

If the proposed metro project is going to bring yet another kind of exclusivity then not only the passengers will suffer but also the system will suffer due to low ridership. Seamless transfers and integration of public transport systems multiplies the benefits for everyone. There is a great opportunity to make Vasna, Paldi, Town hall junction, Wadaj and RTO junction as multi-modal transport hubs interlinking the regional bus, AMTS, BRTS and the proposed metro along with the auto rickshaws and taxis. From building one successful project, our cities will have to transit to make one successful system. Integrating projects and developing a system requires a great political and administrative acumen. A city, where success is measured based on systems and not based on projects, is a smart city.

(27th July, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Be the change: Make slow resurgence of cycling in our cities possible

Nikita Lalwani is an instrumentation engineer working with a multi-national corporate firm called Linde Engineering in Vadodara and she has been cycling to work everyday for last one and half years. Nikita also promotes the idea of cycling at work and she has convinced many of her colleagues to take up cycling seriously. She also runs a website - cyclingcities.infor promoting a cycling culture in our cities. Everyday (or occasional) cycling to work has health benefits for individuals and environmental benefits to the society at large. It is high time that employers, firms and individuals come forward and support employees who are coming to work on cycles by proving secured parking spaces, shower rooms and financial support if need be. Should it not make ‘business sense’ to support cycling, which consumes less parking space compared to cars? Parking is becoming a big real estate problem and if an employee does not want to consume as much parking then it is beneficial to the firm! 
Amidst overwhelming automobile culture and increasing traffic on roads, there has been a slow resurgence of a cycling sub-culture in our cities, at least amongst the privileged class. Ahmedabad has active cycling clubs like Cyclone and Ahmedabad Bicycling Club. There are businesses like Decathlon, Revolutions, Cycle Shop, Cycle Crew and MyByke who support cycling related activities. Emergence of these clubs and businesses indicate that there is a growing interest in cycling. If cycling is further backed up by adequate infrastructure by the government and by private sector employers then this interest will only multiply. Of course, any investment in cycling infrastructure will also benefit lakhs of poor cyclists who commute everyday on cycles and it will also encourage children to take up cycling to go to school or for fun. Apart from the government and private firms, individuals have to play an important role to promote environment-friendly choices like cycling. 
Cycling to work or to other destinations is an individual’s initiative to combat climate change, air pollution and traffic congestion. Are we happy with just our children making drawings like ‘save trees’ in their schools or should our concerns for environmental degradation make us take the onus too? As a society with increasing incomes, should we form habits around relentless consumption or should we make more environmental friendly choices in our own lives? These are difficult questions with straight answers. Do as much as you can to make more environment-friendly choices and encourage others to do so. If you are an employer then encourage your employees to take up cycling and if you are an employee then seek support from your employer for promotion of cycling. 
Probably an entire generation of kids will never know how to wander around the city on cycles. Many parents put a blanket ban on cycling for their children, which may be unnecessary. It should be perfectly alright for children to cycle on roads with less or limited traffic. If such an environment is not available then it should be created even if it is temporary. An interesting cycling event is being planned on the 5 km stretch on the riverfront road on Sunday, July 26, from 6 am onwards. You are welcome to join with your children. The only condition is to bring cycles and possibly helmets. Let’s create a safe cycling environment to promote a cycling culture in our cities because cycling-friendly cities are people-friendly, healthy and beautiful cities.

 (20th July, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Will the next-gen kids ever experience the fun of cycling on city streets?

It has become rare to find films depicting its main protagonist as an everyday cyclist. In the 1940s-50s films, cyclists were depicted as working class heroes who would cycle to work. Here, the cycle would become a symbol of hard work and freedom in an industrialising society. The films of the 1960s and 1970s showed cycling as both a recreational and a group activity, where the actor on a cycle used to go for a ‘picnic’ with his or her friends, singing and dancing. This changed drastically in the 1980s and 1990s when cycling started disappearing from the movies. Since then, cycles have only appeared in nostalgic or atypical sequences, but not as a part of life or as an everyday object. Indian cities have witnessed consistent decline of cycling from everyday life, popular culture and urban landscapes.
Films not only represent collective social experiences but also construct aspirations and imaginations of lifestyles. These observations prompt a gloomy question – is cycling a part of everyday urban life anymore? Is there space in our cities for cycling without getting hurt? Will the children today ever know the fun of aimless wandering - cycling and running around in the streets? Any possibilities of cycling on our motorised traffic-packed streets make a lot of people nervous today. I am not sure how genuine this fear of getting out on a cycle, is but a lot of people complain of safety issues, lack of infrastructure and weather conditions. In spite of all odds, there are lakhs of people who cycle to their destinations in our cities. Many school children still cycle to school for some years. Both of these groups have their own vulnerabilities of being victims in road crashes.
On the other hand, many countries around the world have seen a revival of cycling – London is investing about 1 billion pounds in cycling, that is after spending 500 millions in a public bike sharing scheme known as ‘Boris Bikes’. About 200 European cities, 50 South American cities and about 25 Asian cities have definitive plans for cycling infrastructure and promotion, including the public bike sharing schemes. Weather conditions are not very pleasant in London and in many other European cities, yet the numbers of cyclists keep going up and they continue to build infrastructure. Why in the world are these cities investing in cycling in the 21st century? Because they are worried about climate change and they are fighting the relentless air pollution. Besides, cycling-friendly cities are people-friendly, beautiful cities - Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Antwerp, Buenos Aires and many more. 
We have lakhs of cyclists in our cities but we still need to promote the culture of cycling and fight the social stigma of it being a ‘poor man’s vehicle’. A cycle is perfect for manageable distances and it is surely a healthier and environment-friendly mode of transport unlike any other mode. Cycles takes up less space while moving and parking. You can begin cycling just one day in a week. One message concluded it all for me – ‘cycle burns fat and saves money, car burns money and makes you fat!’ There are lots of local heroes who are putting in great efforts for reviving cycling in cities of Gujarat - more about them next week!

 (13th July, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Stop blaming pedestrians for getting killed & instead sensitise motorists!

In the last week, I read two contradictory news items from Delhi and Ahmedabad. The Delhi Traffic Police took out a drive for unruly motorists to respect pedestrians by giving them enough space on zebra crossing. Motorists who stopped before zebra crossings were given chocolates and key chains and the ones who did not were fined. The reason for this drive was the data of road fatalities – almost 46% of the people who died in road crashes in Delhi were pedestrians. Pedestrians do not have proper footpaths to walk on or safe crossings to go across the roads. It is commendable that the Delhi traffic police took the road fatalities data seriously and ran a campaign of supporting pedestrian rights. 

The other news items came from our own Ahmedabad (DNA, 29/06/15) where pedestrians were termed as ‘rash pedestrians’ by the Traffic Police and blamed for their own death or injuries in road crashes. The pedestrians were asked to use zebra crossings and footpaths to be safe. Great! It would have been utmost helpful, if the Traffic Police took some efforts of showing the said zebra crossings and footpaths by walking for about 200 meters on any city road! Where are the footpaths and zebra crossings in Ahmedabad? Footpaths are mostly covered by parked vehicles, roadside businesses and other things. There is no space left on the zebra crossings for the pedestrians to cross. The zebra crossings start and end in blank walls, planters and hoardings. With such sorry state of pedestrian infrastructure in the city, they are still blamed as ‘causes’ of accidents. 

How can the pedestrians alone be the ‘causes’ of these accidents? When there is a collision can you only blame one side? I can only picture these ‘rash’ pedestrians as being zombies who are crashing themselves into the fast-moving vehicles and committing suicide. Calling pedestrians as the sole reason for accidents amounts to blaming the victims. Pedestrians are victims and not perpetrators of traffic crimes because they are at higher risks and are more vulnerable during road crashes. Victim blaming has its own logical fallacies and besides, it is convenient to blame someone – it distracts the attention from the real problems. If you blame the victims like the pedestrians then no one will ask questions about systemic problems like why there is no safe infrastructure for pedestrians in the city? OR why the Traffic Police is only concerned about protecting the vehicular traffic and why do they ignore the pedestrian or the non-motorised traffic? 

Traffic Police in Ahmedabad and in other cities are doing commendable job of managing the unmanageable – the never-ending traffic. They have scarce resources, inadequate staff, limited equipments and a thankless job. But an important part of their job is to reduce road fatalities and injuries. Blaming the victims does not help their job at all. Rather they should proactively work with different road users to make them safe on our hostile roads. 

About one-third of the total intra-city journeys in our cities are by walking. We all have to walk sometime or the other. Unsafe pedestrian environment affects everyone in the family. When pedestrians are using the roads, they are scavenging for safe spaces to walk on. They operate with a different logic compared to the motorised traffic. Beyond the usual contest over road space, it is essential that both the pedestrians and the motorists understand each other’s way of dealing with the road space and have mutual respect. Cities, which are built on mutual respect and shared spaces, are the most beautiful cities in the world. 

 (6th July, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

At crossroads – deliberative democracy and accountable governance

Few days back in a workshop, a government official (should I dare say servant) remarked that, "too much of democracy is the root of all problems". The context was some communities living in informal settlements refusing to give their 'data' to the officials who had decided to implement 24x7 water supply. These communities were never consulted while planning this scheme and they saw it as a ploy to extract more money from them in the name of services charges for the new scheme. Even the political wing (technically the people’s representative) were also not fully on board. But the officials expected the community to abide by their order (co-operate) and facilitate the implementation of the scheme. This is a classic case of the mutual mis-trust and breakdown in communication stalling the project. A lot could be inferred from this episode but let’s keep our focus on this remark.

Incidentally, it is the 40th anniversary of the declaration of emergency in India when all civil liberties were curtailed for two years, between 1975-77. The years under emergency reflected the attitude that ‘democracy doesn't work, we know what is best for the people and we need free hand to implement those good things’.  While it might seem unfair to connect casual remarks about the imperfections of democracy with the coercive act of subverting democracy at the national level, but both attitudes are born out of the same germs. People who do not like democratic processes are the ones who want to enjoy power without any accountability and govern on whims and fancies. Yes, democratic processes are messy and they take time but they are the fairest ways of dealing with public resources and discourses. More democracy is often answer to complicated public life problems rather less democracy. More democracy means developing projects and their budgets with people and making them part of the decision-making process – especially for the local issues which affect their life directly.

Good governance requires both the preparedness for the last minute and long-term planning for mitigation and adaptation. For example, water-logging and cave-ins in monsoon, heat stress in summer and Swine Flu in winter – how are these events dealt with? Many government officials will admit privately that they have a little time for long-term planning and new ideas. They are either in celebratory mode by managing events or they are chasing the last minute preparedness. And after achieving short-term goals, they come into self-congratulatory mode quickly. There is hardly any long-term planning directed towards mitigation or adaptation. Perpetual adhocism and last minute decisions work best with ‘command and control’ kind of attitudes and democratic processes seems as hindrances. 

In such situation, the only possible relationship between the people and the official is that of a petitioner and a lord. The officials have lost their ability to engage with the citizens on any issue. And the citizens have also lost patience in being part of any deliberative process set up by the government. Yes, we are often not too kind in our criticism of the government. And they are not too kind in dealing with rising expectations. Do we have a fix to this mutually developed fissure in the relationship? Yes, but the fix is not a quick one - more accountability, more deliberations, more engagement on both sides, probably. 

(29th June, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)