Cyclists and Pedestrians – Vanish now!

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“The prosperity of a nation is by counting the number of cars on the roads. Therefore there should not be cyclists travelling long distances and traffic should be made homogenous,”

The above priceless quote was uttered by Delhi’s Engineer-in-Chief, R Subramaniam. I am amazed that such a person with absolutely no knowledge of city form and urban economics holds such a high position in the government. Thankfully, he is only responsible for transportation policy in the capital city and not elsewhere. Policy in socialist India was government-driven and if this was the general attitude of all officials in the capital, we all would be forced to “be prosperous by driving more cars”.

Mr. Subramaniam seems to suffer from a case of spurious correlation. He must have seen America and noticed the number of cars on its road and decided that having more cars is the way to develop your country. Unfortunately, in a material-riddled society, his thoughts are shared by many and acquiring a vehicle irrespective of the ability to drive one safely is seen as an indicator of prosperity. In fact, people are buying more cars is only indicative of the choice they are making with their new-found wealth. However, if you look closely, they don’t even have that kind of money but they simply have easier access to car loans that the financial sector is heaping on the consumers. If the people somehow had opted to buy tons of chocolates with the money, it would mean that more chocolates in the country mean a more prosperous nation. So cars are simply a commodity that people buy to indicate their economic condition. Cars thus do not make a country prosperous but prosperous countries sure do have more cars.

Why am I harping so much on this lone bureaucrat’s statement? Simply because, it is one of the reasons that the Urban Development Ministry chose not to impose the condition to allocate space for pedestrians and cyclists for the city of Delhi. It allocated Rs.1650 crores over the next for years to Delhi to build 25 new flyovers and road over bridges. All this money with no express condition to consider the other forms of transportation – bicycles and pedestrians – which incidentally is also the primary form of transport for the lower-income class of people. However, Mumbai was denied this transportation largesse because of the same condition that it exempted Delhi from.

This policy decision is wrong and unfair on multiple counts. First, it unfairly discriminates against the population of the city that doesn’t own cars. Flyovers are primarily meant for car owners so that it can expedite their commute and reduce congestion. Of course, on the flip side, such a policy of building flyovers in fact encourages car ownership and brings more cars on the streets thus negating the advantage of additional road space added by flyovers. More flyovers are built to rectify the problem and the cycle continues. If you want to see a city dominated by flyovers and roads, come down to Houston and see if you would like to live in a ‘prosperous city with lots of cars and flyovers’. Second, the policy discriminates between cities i.e. Delhi and Mumbai by having different standards. Urban transportation policy needs to be coherent and if allocating space for pedestrians and cyclists is a guiding principle, it cannot differ from city unless a city has no cycles or people walking on the street, which is not the case for any Indian city, big or small. Third, environmentally, encouraging a car-centric urban form is disastrous. The prosperous nations that Mr. Subramaniam looks up to have since long suffered from problems of sprawl and inner city dilapidation causing other socio-economic problems. The developed countries have begun to reconsider their position on the role of automobiles in a city. London has already imposed a hefty congestion tax that limits vehicular traffic in the city (government-side policy) and astronomical parking charges make driving into New York City make it economically unviable (market-oriented mechanism). Dense and pedestrian friendly cities not only improve the social fabric of the city but also cause a lesser burden on the environment, at least until a pollution-free mode of transportation is developed.

Let us hope that this policy decision is reconsidered. The worse case scenario would be if Mumbai also was given the luxury of ignoring the transportation needs of more than 90% of its population.

In related news, Lata Mangeshkar is in the news for ‘delaying city infrastructure improvements’. In a later post, I will explain why her actions aren’t wrong.