Mobility for all

Urban India is witnessing a rising number of cars and two-wheelers on its roads. Cars and two-wheelers, which enjoy a huge 85% share in the total vehicular fleet, have seen an unforeseen rate of growth in recent years; their number swell by 80 million in the last decade, two times what was added in the five decades since Independence.

While India's average national vehicle ownership levels are low in comparison to many countries, some of its cities have far exceeded the car ownership levels in other countries. In 2011, Delhi's per capita GDP was almost a fifth of Singapore's and Hong Kong's. But the car ownership level in Delhi (157 cars per 100 population) is much higher than that in Singapore and Hong Kong (116 and 67, respectively).

Private motorisation, a function of rising income levels of a household, has several benefits, including the opportunities that mobility brings to an individual to grow socially and economically. But these benefits come along with many associated direct and indirect costs-environmental, social and economic costs that are not necessarily borne by the owners/users of private transport modes.

In fact, those who suffer from the negative externalities of transport, congestion, air pollution and road accidents are usually the ones who do not own or use a private means of transport.

So, while it is alright to hail the benefits of rising opportunities and subsequent economic growth brought by private motorisation, a blind eye cannot be turned to its impact on those who cannot own or use private motorised modes-the impact on their health, life, productivity, social inclusion and right to precious urban space.

The country's approach to transport planning and infrastructure development has been largely indifferent to the basic principles of equity. Consequently, it has planned for car/vehicle-centric cities that are dependent on 'automobiles'. It is still caught in the vicious cycle of trying to improve the mobility of vehicles, which creates a never-ending demand for road space and urban space, leading to the creation of urban sprawls.

The entire approach to urban and transport planning and infrastructure needs to be re-looked at from the angles of the problem of inequity, the problem of sprawls and the problem of private motorisation.

While the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and the subsequently announced National Urban Transport Policy tried to address some of the anomalies, the results haven't yet spoken for themselves, which may indicate that we haven't still got it right.

While we have improved public transport, which hasn't shifted people from their cars and two-wheelers, we haven't done anything substantial for the pedestrians and cyclists, a commuter group that typically constitutes 30-40% of commuting in larger cities and a much higher share in smaller cities. We have a bad record in terms of road accidents, a trend that doesn't seem to improve just on its own.

Interestingly, a very 'small' share of investments required for improvements in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure fails to compete with the much 'prestigious' and 'massive' transport infrastructure projects in terms of government priority.

While we may be able to applaud for a few transport infrastructure projects that have come up under the JNNURM, it is rare to sight examples of non-motorised transport infrastructure delivered by the cities in their attempt to provide an equitable mobility environment to all.

The solutions are not easy to come, but not that difficult either. The approach at the macro level is in fact getting aligned in the right direction, as can be seen in the recent recommendations of the 12th five-year plan, which give an impetus to public and non-motorised transport infrastructure.

However, the basic problems would have to be addressed through a 'bottom up' approach, and that is where probably the central government will need to take either a backseat or devise some innovative ways of enthusing action by cities to improve themselves.

The lack of a bottom-up approach probably has been one missing piece in the previous phase of the JNNURM. While the central government has gone all out to help cities, the response from the cities hasn't matched equally, probably due to a lack of capacity, institutions, or vision on what is the right direction to develop equitable transport systems.

More initiatives from cities are required, and this would happen only if there is 'one' government body to deal with transport at city and city regions. There have been a few welcome initiatives to form 'unified metropolitan transport authorities' in a few cities, but there would have to be more of these instances.

Equally important is to have the right capacity, vision and power within these institutions, which can then steer the growth of transport systems in the right direction and enable cities to address the big issue of rising inequity in cities from rising private motorisation.

Tags: urban transportation, transport planning, private motorisation, Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission, transport infrastructure