A STREETCAR NAMED VISION

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By More room for automobiles does not make roads more mobile. Abhijit Sarkar tries to find an efficient way to move a city?s people
  • Published 28.03.06
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?The important questions are not about engineering but about ways to live...The technical aspects are relatively simple. The difficult decisions relate to who is going to benefit from the models adopted. Do we dare to create a transport system giving priority to the needs of the poor majority rather than the automobile owning minority? Are we trying to find the most efficient, economical way to move a city?s population, as cleanly and as comfortably as possible? Or are we just trying to minimize the upper class?s traffic jams?? ? Enrique Penalosa, mayor of Bogota, Colombia.

Enrique Penalosa is no polemicist or gun-totting revolutionary. Much that he says is rooted in his experience of transforming Bogota from a commuting nightmare to an exemplar of mobility management. If it can happen in the vivid chaos of M?rquez?s renderings or Charles Nicholl?s chilling reportage, why can?t it in our very own Calcutta? Of course, it can ? with the healing of a fixation called PCU/Hr, that is, passenger car units per hour. PCU/Hr is the number of vehicles a road delivers in an hour and also the number of vehicles it should be prepared to carry at a future date, given the increase in the number and use of cars. This given ? in fact, the given-ness of this given ? like some other givens of life, comes in the way of change and sustainable solutions. Psychology?s claim to motherhood of all sciences rings true.

In our cities, the number and use of personalized modes, namely cars and motorized two-wheelers, are increasing at an alarming rate. More than soft finance, this owes to a largely inconvenient, uncomfortable and unattractive public transportation system. Yet, the vast majority of people in cities like Delhi and Calcutta commute by mass transit, bicycle and on foot. Those who can, travel by car or motorcycle. Those who cannot, look forward to their pillion-rides or scooters tomorrow and cars the day after.

While cars and two-wheelers in Indian cities keep increasing ? for instance, in Delhi, the addition is over 200,000 a year ? induction of buses is not incremental but overwhelmingly as replacement. Therefore, what clog the streets are not buses. This is very easily noticed even by a visual estimate of the different kinds of vehicles caught in a jam. Another fact is that a bus utilizes road-space far better than any car can, in terms of the number of passengers carried. This is a bit of an interesting revelation if roads are seen as a means of carrying x number of people rather than y number of cars and motorcycles. So, should road infrastructure be designed to move as many cars and motorcycles as possible or as many people by mass transit, bicycle and on foot as possible? A sensible response must be too obvious to be enunciated, assuming improvement of air-quality and lowering of fuel-consumption are reasonable objectives.

The PCU/Hr syndrome causes periodic paring of footpaths in order not only to accommodate more PCUs but also to ease congestion. Friendly coexistence of these two objectives in the same plan of finite-space management is a puzzle some find impossible to crack. PCUs do rise as prophesied but the wretched congestion refuses to go away. All else remaining constant, the demand for a product increases if its attractiveness increases. The temptation is irresistible when it comes gratis. Worldwide, the experience is that enhanced road space encourages traffic that, like gas, expands to fill every nook and cranny. Economists, reportedly, call it induced demand. Meanwhile, the appropriation of public space gets neatly swept under the carpet. City roads shall remain insufficient till PCU/Hr is in possession of wisdom hegemonies. Are the roads too little or the PCUs too many? Does the bulk of our urban population-increment own vehicles? These questions and the way their answers are used will decide what is there for us and our children in the very unhypothetical here and now.

At many places, footpaths have been pruned to tokens or less. More vehicles pour in to hog the new development. Pedestrians sans footpath come in the way of vehicles; to walk, stand or in order just to be, eventually to die or be maimed and pronounced undisciplined. The pest that people generally are, had stirred Bertolt Brecht into versifying ?The Solution?: ?After the uprising of the 17th June/The Secretary of the Writers Union/Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee/Stating that the people/Had forfeited the confidence of the government/And could win it back only/By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier/In that case for the government/To dissolve the people/And elect another??

Interestingly, irrespective of the means of travel, everyone has to be a pedestrian; at least for some distance. This bother won?t perish till automobiles drive right up to department store shelves and executive desks. But pedestrian convenience and safety are routinely ignored in designing and making of road infrastructure. This affects not only the life, limb and dignity of pedestrians but everyone?s, especially the numerical majority?s, mobility and access and even the very movement of traffic that road-augmentation is intended to ease. This unintended consequence and a concern for increasing PCU-throughput ? admittedly genuine, from its own point of view, like all concerns ? cause a rising spiral of footpath-cutting, flyovers, footbridges, underground crosswalks. The utility-ruining dereservation of Calcutta?s tramtracks is an initiative that promises to turn the relatively low-risk act of crossing roads into adventure sport.

Since accident-risk and ability-demanding means like footbridges (including escalators) and underground crosswalks inhibit the risk-averse and the suboptimally-abled, they also curb walk-trips and independent social, recreational, educational or shopping visits. Chores expand to envelop relationships more than they need to. Social interaction declines. Time gets thieved without any compensatory time being added to the 24-hour day. Speed-hunger aggravates. Speed-gains ? more apparent than real and far less per traveller than is believed by policy-makers ? translate into travel-time earnings of a small but very visible minority. Time-gains of the well-wheeled are spent to buy increasing distances between work, home, friends and other attachments. Vehicle-miles travelled increase, as do fuel-sales, pollution, GDP, dissatisfaction, road-rage and general per capita. But no net credit on the travel-time ledger.

Our metropolises have very high levels of public transport use and cheek-by-jowl inhabitation, which urban United States of America, Australia or Europe lack. What we have are assets. They should not be misconstrued as liabilities but used towards a far better quality of urban life. It is being increasingly appreciated worldwide ? urban-sprawled, automobile-dependent, oil-guzzling US included ? that traffic jams are a car too many, not scarcity of roads. The Federal Transport Administration now encourages US cities to adopt bus rapid transit ? buses in reserved, priority lanes of metropolitan roads ? for overcoming automobile dependence and traffic. As for the litany of how Asia and the Americas are worlds apart and Indian realities are unique (to the point of being extra-global), it would be useful to note that space reallocation for public transit and human access is a growing phenomenon over diverse urban situations across continents. BRT in Taipei (Taiwan), Kunming (China) and impossible-seeming Jakarta (Indonesia) are some Asian instances. Delhi is reported to be in an advanced stage.