Dialogue of the Deaf

  • 09/02/2011

One of the major events organized by the Ministry of Urban Development is the Urban Mobility Conference held in New Delhi in the first week of December each year. The theme of the latest conference held on 3rd, 4th and 5th of December 2010 at the Grand Hotel, New Delhi was “Sustainable Urban Transport: Accessibility and Inclusive Cities”. It attracted over 250 representatives from cities and states, 350 from the transport industry, 150 from academia, 250 young researchers and 90 exhibitors. There were 24 presentations through 8 technical sessions and 4 partner events through 2 panel discussions.


Outside in one corner of the exhibition area, with informal arrangement of “charpais” and “bamboo-stools” was the “Rehensheel Sheher Nukkad” (which literally means the Livable City Corner) with active short 45 minute sessions in which students, young professionals and expo visitors were involved in intense discussions on local issues and shared experiences on topics like “condition of the pedestrians” or the need for “shared public spaces” in our expanding cities.


As one would expect, most of the stalls in the exhibition displayed technology heavy transportation projects such as MMRDA (showing off Flyovers and Skywalks) Jaipur city BRT and Bus Transmission Technologies and the glittering PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) cubicles promising revolutionary changes in the way commuters of the future would travel. There was also a Sedgway, touted as the green technology single user scooter that one could use instead of one’s own feet for travelling short distances.


Inside the conference halls was a totally different atmosphere – with speaker after speaker stressing the need to urgently adopt what is now called the “the New Mobility Vision”. This is nothing but the “Sustainable Transport Manifesto” which can be summed up in just one paragraph –

  • Priority to Walking, Cycling and Public Transport with simultaneous disincentives to personal auto vehicle use - and once this begins to happen – to make our cities attractive and livable for people which in turn will lead to sustainable economic growth and prosperity.


This is what visionary leaders and NGOs have been saying the world over for the last few decades, but only now seems to have broken through the invisible barrier that strangely keeps good ideas out of reach of mainstream thinking.

Just look at some of the key messages and statements emanating from different sessions –

 

Day 1
Inaugural session reiterated the key recommendation from our NUTP (National Urban Transport Policy) - “People occupy centre stage to make our cities the most livable in the world and become engines of economic growth”


Inaugural address emphasized -

  • Stress on moving people not on moving vehicles.
  • Urban transport to be accessible and inclusive
  • Pedestrian facilities are important
  • Cycling must be made a fashion statement
  • Paradigm shift from vehicles to people


Keynote address by Mr Peter Hendy, Commissioner, Transport for London -

  • Promote public transport
  • Integrated ticketing
  • Improve quality and expand public transport system


Panel Discussion on UMTA-

  • Emphasized importance of UMTA armed with authority, expertise and funding

 

Day 2
Technical Sessions on Environment and Traffic Management

  • Adopt Euro III and IV standards by 2010
  • Studies on health and impacts from auto emissions important
  • Inclusive planning with walking and cycling are import components
  • TDM (discouraging auto vehicle use) with Parking Policy as the first step.
  • Flyovers, underpasses, foot over-bridges and subways not successful. Instead provide safe at-grade pedestrian crossings.
  • Signal free junctions and construction of flyovers detrimental to overall traffic improvement.
  • Singapore case study emphasized need for integrated networks and restrictive policies for cars to ensure the success of public transport modes.
  • Congestion pricing, high parking charges and car-free areas coupled with better facilities to bike and walk were options cities had to move towards.
  • The delegate from Seoul, South Korea (famous for demolishing the elevated road on Cheonggyecheon River and converting the area into a vehicle-free people friendly recreational zone that has now become very popular) explained how the city was planning to demolish 17 more elevated roads /flyovers and giving high priority to public transport and car-free areas.

 

Day 3
In the concluding session Mr Jaipal Reddy the Minister for Urban Development, sounded almost apologetic when admitting there were delays in implementation of policies framed by his ministry and hoped this will change soon.

All in all it was heady stuff for New Mobility proponents and activists. As we left the venue hotel on the final day there was a mood of elation about what the conference had achieved and we were ready to forgive the organizers for having chosen such an out of place venue to house this conference, where the only mode of transport was the high cost tourist taxi. No one in the hotel seemed to know much about what buses one could catch or give useful details about Metro stations and their routes, though there was a Metro station not too far from the hotel.


But back home nothing has changed!
Back to our cities, things seemed to be totally out of synch with the atmosphere in the mobility conference. Our cities are deeply stuck in the old mindset of building more and more roads and flyovers to ease the movement of personal vehicles.

  • Mumbai has plans for constructing multi-story car parks from private builders in return for substantial free FSI (buildable area) coupled with generous dose of TDR (transferable development rights) –though this is brazenly in contravention of parking as a tool for TDM (Traffic Demand Management)
  • Pune’s Municipal Budget proposals recently announced include plans for the discredited Sky-Walks that have totally failed in Mumbai. What’s worse, when elevated highways/flyovers are being demolished in other parts of the world, the city plans to build a massive elevated road from one end of the city to the other. The Municipal Commissioner has decided this is a better solution than a ring road. Of course he hasn’t carried out any surveys or traffic studies to support this presumption nor held any public hearings. In the same city, some political parties are demanding the scrapping of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) though Pune was the first city to start a BRT way back in December 2006. During these past 4 years they have not been able to complete even the pilot corridor of 14 kms as no single agency is in charge of BRT. The Municipal Corporation is not interested in putting it right – it says “PMPL (Pune Public Transport body) should do this”. PMPML itself is reeling under financial, technical and political neglect though it carries over 11 lakh trips daily – but while the city (Pune and Pimpr-Chinchwad) wants a Metro Rail with a price tag of over Rs 15,000 crores, it is reluctant to set aside a farthing for the only Public Transport bus transport system that has been in operation since 1950.
  • To rub salt into the wounds, PMC recently deleted a reservation for parking buses and converted it to parking of personal auto vehicles.
  • In Bangalore, citizens and NGOs are fighting the municipal corporation’s plans to chop down hundreds of trees and cutting the width of footpaths for increasing the road width for cars.
  • Even in Delhi, a city that has more cars than all other metro cities put together, the spate of building flyovers continues.

 


Other cities too have similar horror stories to show what our policy makers and politicians say in (mobility) conferences in Delhi and recommend under the JnNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) projects is more talk than action. Cities are merrily using these funds to build more roads and flyovers and parking lots for motor vehicles.


And why not? No one has come down heavily on such blatant “misappropriation” and stopped funding that ostensibly is meant for improving public transport.


Some NGOs who complained to the Urban Development Department and JnNURM in Delhi were told that transport being a “state” subject the ministry from Delhi can’t really do much to stop such misuse – forgetting perhaps that the central government grants are specifically meant for strengthening Public Transport and Non Motorised Transport in cities and not for building more infrastructure for cars.


To conclude, I’m reminded of this quote:

“It would be so nice if something made sense for a change”
                                                             - Alice in Wonderland
 

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