How did you get into the space of cities and transport programme?
I am an architect and an urban planner. I was largely working in the consulting space from 2003 till I took a maternity break in August of 2009 and realised that I wanted to do something more than just preparing reports. One needs to work closely with the agencies involved to create positive change on ground That’s when I started working for World Resources Institute. The way we design our transport systems and cities is based on the average male between the age of 15 and 35 years and because of this fallacy we are ruining our cities right from the design stage, and unless women and other stakeholders come into the space, things will not change. I, therefore, decided to plunge into this space. We believe sustainability and economic prosperity can go hand in hand, provided we make the right choices.
What are your thoughts on Chandigarh and the proposed Metro project?
Chandigarh is one of the most beautiful cities of the country with some really good infrastructure but since it is mostly an administrative city, it lacks some ‘life’ that we witness in typical Indian cities.
Chandigarh is also not designed to support the metro system and under the current land use scenario, metro in Chandigarh will never get the desired ridership. A high-quality public transport system based on buses would be the right approach for Chandigarh, maybe something like what Curitiba in Brazil has done since 1970, which is also a planned city. Also, there is a need for safe streets for all categories of road users. We need dedicated lanes for cyclists and unobstructed footpaths.
What are the major issues Indian cities face today with respect to roads and transport?
Congestion, sprawl and inefficiencies are the three major problems in our cities. We are only 32 per cent urbanised as per the 2011 Census although urbanisation stabilises at around 80-85 per cent. We have to make things right, else we would be locked in like most of the north American cities.
What, according to you, is the need of the hour?
I feel that we need the five Es in this area — education, enforcement, engagement which means inclusivity of people because sustainable projects come and go, it is people’s participation that makes it work, engineering (planning long term) and emergency (of putting it into practice). There are hardly 10-15 per cent car users and we have dedicated our entire road and transport structure to them. What about those on foot or cycles or using public transport? Where is the space and model for them to commute smoothly? We cannot keep constructing flyovers and widening roads to counter traffic jams. We have to improve public transport, make it safe, secure and reliable for the 90-95 per cent population that use it. For instance, around 11 corporates in Gurgaon have stopped cab service and moved to buses. The unfortunate thing is that using public transport or a cycle or walking is considered something ‘underprivileged’ in India.
Solutions also point at long-term systematic change in the way we govern our cities. What can be done immediately is that cities start monitoring key performance indicators (KPI), like they do in Latin America and put the annual data for public to see how a city is performing and how the agencies are addressing the issue. The KPI include Average Passenger Travel Time, Modal Split, Road Traffic Fatalities, and Air Quality.
You are assertive about integrated land use and transport planning. Can you throw some light on this?
Transportation projects in our cities are planned and executed in ‘project format’. For example, someone will plan a bus service, someone will do a road, someone will come up with a cycle or an electric rickshaw, but all this happens in a fragmented way. As a result, we are unable to get the desired impact. Integrated transport, on the other hand, starts from users and not projects. It starts from the fact that how one can safely transport a user from point A to B in the most efficient manner. It means that systems are integrated at all levels, right from planning, operation and infrastructure to finance and institution level.
While clearing blocks on cities and transport front, what are the other roadblocks you face?
Most of the planning happens without clear understanding of the data and that’s where we all go wrong. The main problem is that most of those who plan transportation in our cities still believe that by widening roads or creating flyovers they will solve the mobility problems there. This approach has never worked in any city of the world and it will not work here.
Also, even though we have three levels of governance, the third tier, i.e. the city government, is the weakest. No one actually heads a city. Its functions get divided among the municipal commissioner, development authority chief, mayor, etc. They don’t have time to look at long-term needs. Even if they do, they are always dependent on the state and national governments. And although common problems such as corruption and red tapism, etc exist, there is a major structural problem with the system that hampers the development of sustainable mobility and hence, one sees short-term solutions like constructing flyovers or widening roads.
How well does a car-free day work and how much difference has the odd-even experiment in Delhi made?
The odd-even scheme in Delhi was a great short-term experiment. It raised awareness. But we need to devise a comprehensive approach to put our cites off the ‘car diet’. Car-fee zones, car permit auctions, congestion pricing, parking pricing and restrictions, and restrictions based on licence plates have been adopted across the world with different degrees of success. It will, however, not be easy. A city like London took three decades of debate before introducing congestion charging.
What mode of transport do you use?
I have a Maruti 800, which I use mostly for social and emergency purposes. I have two bicycles that I regularly use for commute. I use Metro a lot, especially when I commute between Delhi and Gurgaon, and use an autorickshaw as a feeder. I miss the absence of buses in Gurgaon.