“Most problems the developing world is facing become better as one gets richer. Except for transportation, it gets worse.” Enrique Peñalosa, the revolutionary urbanist and the former mayor of Bogota said to me in an Interview in Mumbai, even as the rush-hour traffic soared in the backdrop. His words echoed in my mind as India and the world at large got a peek at the $2,500 Tata Motors car for the first time at the New Delhi Auto Expo last year. The remarkable engineering feat by Tata is a proud moment for India; but, it is also a sign of a looming social catastrophe.
The launch of the people’s car commercially is bound to further aggravate the already congested roads and pollution in the sub-continent’s cities. Anyone who has been through the noisy, smoggy and never-ending traffic jams in any of India’s cities will recognize that we can barely handle the current traffic, let alone think about managing the 300 million new car owners that the $2,500- $ 3,000 cars can attract over the coming decade.
The combination of poor mass transit and the public fascination with the personal automobile has meant huge investments on road infrastructure by India’s civic authorities. The trend is obviously unwise considering the belief among urban experts that road building, though fundamentally essential, moves in a vicious circle.
“The world’s experience over the last 40 years is that the more roads you build, the more they will get filled up”, said Peter Hendy, the Commissioner of Transport for London said during his visit to India.
But the Indian urban planner’s historic obsession with low-density urban development strategies has created relentlessly growing cities and American-style urban sprawl that depend heavily on the roads and thereby personal automobiles. This sort of urban form makes public transport difficult to function, and favors roads and personal vehicle owners over mass transit. But such private automobile-centric urban design is known to make today’s large cities unproductive. The loss in working hours due to long commute times is already taking a toll on urban dwellers in most Indian cities. The current unchecked urban form also has an economic impact on the citizenry. According to a study conducted by Alain Bertaud, former principal urban planner, World Bank, “In Bangalore, India’s information technology capital, the consumer loss from density restrictions is equivalent to 3-6 percent of the total household revenue.”
More importantly, as the developing world gets set to house some two billion new inhabitants into its cities in the coming decades – It is clear that the world’s sustainability is also largely trusted with the third world. Auto-dependent urban centers with increasing pollution and reliance on fossil fuels can be disastrous for the planet’s future. The urban design concepts of the future should give serious thought to the vital issue of accessibility and transportation, and embrace design tenets that endeavor to reduce energy use and preserve ecology.
A number of experts have promoted the compact urban form as an ideal response to sustainability challenges. Compact urban patterns make use of less land area thus conserving crucial green space and farmland, help reduce travel distances, promote walking and encourage use of public transit. A number of cities in Europe like Amsterdam and Oxford, and Portland in the US have been engaging in policies of compact urban form. Research indicates that compact high density cities use half as much energy and generate half as much air pollution per capita vis-a-vis a sprawling city.
The transport solution for the future cities is to focus on creating top notch urban transit like Bus Rapid Transit, Metros, and Light Rails along with bicycle paths and friendly pedestrian ways that can help move millions around efficiently. Cars undeniably offer the greatest personal mobility, but they are bound to be insignificant in cities of the future.