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India's roads: Whose space is it anyway?

Delh roads suffer a lot more than what standard roads are supposed to endure. But is that all that is there to think about when with rapid urbanization, Indian roads are getting gridlocked? WION's Priyanka Verma, Kamran Ahmad and Abinov Raina tell us Photograph: (WION)

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Jul 03, 2017, 10.33 AM (IST) Priyanka Verma

“A developed country is not the one where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation.”
? Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.

The mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique is perhaps the world’s most transit-friendly politician. He oversaw the construction of TransMilenio, the world’s first modern Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT), which now carries over 2 million people a day. He restricted vehicle usage based on license plate numbers to reduce congestion. He scrapped plans for a new highway. He grew the city’s bike path network by 350km, making it the largest network in Latin America. In the process, he helped transform the city into a symbol of the revitalising power of good public transit.

Cities are basins of opportunities. People from many smaller towns come here to work and earn their livelihood and in turn, these citizens help in driving national economies. But one can sense the scale of the traffic problem in the urban set up when these cities begin to look like they have been designed for cars instead of people.

It becomes starkly noticeable then, how we have invested very little in designing a 'balanced city' wherein it balances the needs of many different residents, from school children to migrant labourers, and between green spaces and the built environment. It then becomes significant, how poorly cities reward their citizens for their contribution in driving national economies.

With the rapid rate of urbanisation, cities are bound to pose various challenges in the 21st century. Delhi itself has a population of 1.86 crore. Migration accounts for nearly 23 per cent of the total increase in population per year. By 2020, the population is expected to rise by another 40 per cent. But unfortunately, the way in which this population is inhabiting the city is not at all too well designed.

We have certainly come a long way from the days of Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker who designed most of the Delhi landscape.  While we continue to design and re-design the city, we need to ask ourselves a few questions: Are we adopting applicable ideas from other developed cities in the world? If so, what ideas are those? Are those ideas viable for Indian city spaces? What are the implications of adopting these ideas in a city like Delhi? Is the design able to address the most important needs of its citizens?

The problem is, of course, multilayered, but at the heart of it is the issue of urban mobility. In order to tackle this issue, we built flyovers. But flyovers were built to give cars direct and smooth transitions past traffic bottlenecks. Ironically, it is now common to run into a traffic jam on stretches leading to and away from a flyover. Anyhow, Delhi ended up constructing around 70 flyovers, the most for any city in India. When most of these flyovers are creating bottlenecks of congestion, it becomes interesting that we find out what is it that is making our governments invest more and more of our public money into constructing them? At a time when one-third of Delhi walks to work, our roads are poorly designed for safe walking and cycling. To top it all, public transport remains highly unreliable because of its poor frequency and its inability to feed all parts of the city.

Reflecting upon how poorly our cities are designed, Architect and Principal of PSDA, Pradeep Sachdeva says, "While we have constructed one of the finest metro systems in the world with great efficiency, what we didn't do is when you step out, it is chaotic. We didn't really plan on how people are going to cover the last mile. You have a signage which says, "No cycle rickshaws allowed" and around that are there are lots of cycle rickshaws that are parked. In this way you are wishing things away. How will people commute if you don't have cycle rickshaws over there? Cycle rickshaw is actually a mode of transport of the future because it's completely green. It becomes important therefore to design clear designated space for cycle rickshaws".

According to Center for Science and Environment (CSE), if Delhi has to meet its target of 80 per cent of public transport share by 2020, it will have to spend on walking and cycling feeders. At the moment our policies are too weak to protect the pedestrians and their right to walk and cycle. 

Across the world, cities are letting their streets open for pedestrians, cyclists and a wide array of other activities which in turn is letting their citizens acknowledge the values of an inclusive space. Other than helping to cut down the use of fossil fuels and reduce air pollution, cycling is the perfect antidote for our sedentary lifestyle. It is about time that Indian cities become cycling-friendly with at least one-third of the country’s population adopting cycling not only as a commute option but also as an integral part of their lifestyle.

Priyanka Verma

When not working on a story, you will find Priyanka Verma watching a lot of world cinema. She is besotted with the visual medium.

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