"............ what was the question?"

  • 16/11/2010

“…………… what was the question?”

If you ask someone living in one of our medium or large cities to name the most serious civic problem faced by his city, he will more likely than not say it is the growing problem of traffic.

Whether it is the businessman stuck in the rush hour traffic jam in his air conditioned Mercedes, or the upwardly mobile young professional driving to work in his Maruti or the Honda motorcycle to say nothing about the unfortunate commuter travelling in the city bus or the one having to cycle or walk to work, the condition of traffic on our roads has been getting worse with each passing year.

Even with the financial package offered to cities under the JnNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) the Transport budget of which is explicitly meant to improve public transport systems in the cities in accordance with recommendations of the National Urban Transport Policy, condition of traffic in cities is deteriorating at an alarming rate.

On the other hand the number of auto vehicles (most of them private vehicles) registered at the Regional Transport Office each year is outstripping by far the available road space. This is in spite of the ongoing road widening and building of flyovers. Naturally existing parking lots and even roadside parking spaces are unable to accommodate the exploding number of auto vehicles coming on the roads each day in cities across the country. What is worse, their growing number is crowding out public transport making commuting by public buses even more difficult. As a consequence, walking and cycling has become not only more difficult but extremely unsafe. Accidents statistics show that majority of persons dying on our roads are pedestrians.

It is thus hardly surprising that when people discuss their pet peeves, traffic congestion tops the list and is by far the most popular topic of discussion over a cup of tea or a glass of beer in dinner conversations or social gatherings. And much as in case of art or architecture, when it comes to making small talk about urban traffic, everyone’s an expert. Even a novice normally reluctant to open his mouths loses all inhibitions and starts firing from the hip with his suggestions. Within a few minutes there’s a deluge of ideas floating around the room ranging from the need for a new six lane road or a massive parking lot like one sees in Hollywood movies!

But it doesn’t stop at that. Many feel traffic discipline and stiff fines imposed by traffic cops on flying squad is the best answer. Still others want a ban on cycle-rickshaws and auto-rickshaws for clogging the movement of other (faster) auto vehicles, jamming of wrongly parked vehicles, arresting jay-walkers and enforcing the helmet rule for motorcycle riders (this suggestion is most strongly made by those who never use a two-wheeler).

Many of these suggestions are valid, relevant and some even urgently needed, but are we missing something here?

Are these the right answers to the wrong questions?

I’m reminded of a story I read once about EF Schumacher, the author of “Small is Beautiful” who is considered by many as one of the most original thinkers and contributors to defining the modern environmental movement. The story goes something like this.

A group of people in Schumacher’s office were furiously arguing about something important when EFS walked in. Seeking a verdict one of them asked “What do you think is the right answer?

Schumacher who was anything but predictable, paused for a moment and narrowing his eyes asked, “But gentlemen, what was the question?”

This graphic illustration of the well known saying “It is more important to ask the right questions than rush to find an answer” is I think good advice for us all.

What are the right questions to ask for discovering sustainable solutions to the pressing problems of urban transportation? Here’s my attempt at defining some questions.

Question 1: What problems does the present vision on urban transport create?

Possible Answers: Congestion, Pollution, Fuel/Energy costs, Health, Accidents, Threat to natural and man-made heritage, Livability and impact on CO2 and Global Warming.

Question 2: What solutions are being tried to tackle these problems?

Possible Answers: More and wider roads, Flyovers, More spaces carved out for auto vehicles, More land for parking (mainly for personal vehicles), Cleaner fuels and better engines (but with high growth in vehicle numbers this may achieve little. Continuing subsidies for auto vehicles. In short Auto Dominated “solutions”.

Question 3: What will this do?

Possible Answers: More congestion in three to five years, More pollution within one year or less, Greater adverse impacts on health, Higher fuel/energy costs, Greater environmental damage with cars (and two wheelers) hijacking more land area for roads and parking, Reduced quality of life, More CO2 and greater contribution to Global Warming and Climate Change.

Question 4: What is the Alternative Vision (for urban transport)?

Possible Answers: Treat Car (auto vehicle) as the servant not the master, Promote Public Transport and Non-Motorised-Transport (invest, improve, innovate and increase these modes), Better fuel and less polluting technologies, Create more Open Spaces, Public Spaces, Carfree Zones and progressively enlarge these as Public Transport and Non-Motorised-Transport begin to pick up higher share of rides, Impose Traffic Demand Management Measures (dis-incentives to auto vehicle use) such as Steeper Parking Charges, Congestion Charging, Pollution levies and Car Restricted Areas, Stop dismantling Mixed Land Use in City Master Plans and encourage Greater De-segregation of population. These measures will reduce congestion, pollution, reduce fuel/energy costs and produce positive impacts on health, livability and climate change mitigation.

Question 5: What can we do to bring this about?

Possible Answers: Let’s ask ourselves this question. In its proper understanding we will find the right answers.