Footpaths, not highways, the mark of a good city

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Free run for public transport… for the greater good.
Free run for public transport… for the greater good.

Problems of urban mobility can be tackled only through high-quality public spaces, efficient public transport, and roads that are pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly.

Our Chennai Bureau

Governments need to build large land banks around growing cities if they are serious about housing for all. Land around growing cities cannot completely be in private hands if prices are to come down, says Mr Enrique Penalosa, President, Board of Directors, Institute for Transportation & Development.

Mr Penalosa, an internationally recognised expert on urban development, says when market forces operate, high prices result in increased supply and lower prices. But that does not apply to land. That is why governments of developed countries such as Sweden and Finland bought large tracts of land early last century. This helps to keep land prices under control because supply can be increased.

This was tried in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, of which he was mayor between 1998 and 2001, when large “land chunks” were bought and “high-quality, low-income housing created.” But it was too little too late.

However, it is “not too late for Chennai” or most other Indian cities, he advises.

In India, the population is bound to urbanise and cities such as Chennai will grow five times in the next 50 years. That means that most of the city is yet to be built. There is time to plan, he says.

Before starting on infrastructure such as transport, decide how you want your city to be, said Mr Penalosa at a meeting organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry and Chennai City Connect, an organisation working for planned urban development.

The major segment of the population spends more time in public spaces and public transport than inside their home. It is the quality of these public spaces that needs to be addressed first. A bus carries more people than a car, then the priority in road design should be for the bus. Few use cars but everyone has to use a footpath if only to get into the car or walk to the bus. It is not up to the governments alone, but also the developers. Every large building should ensure that it upgrades the quality of the public space and pavement in its immediate neighbourhood.

Top priority for buses

A strong proponent for making modern cities inclusive, Mr Penalosa says that only with high quality public spaces, efficient public transport, and roads that are pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly can problems of urban transport be addressed.

Ask the traffic commissioners of a developed country and his counterpart in a developing country about transport and traffic policy — the former is likely to talk about public transport and the latter about widening roads to take more cars.

No city in the world has wide enough roads to handle all its traffic. Flyovers, bridges and broad roads get choked. Look at any of the traffic-choked American cities with their giant highways, he says.

“The main characteristic of an under-developed city” are narrow footpaths and broad roads, he says. Cities such asBoston and Seoul are pulling down flyovers and highways, spending billions of dollars, because they do not solve traffic problems. Many modern cities have realised this and are making amends. If a resident of a European city cycles to work it is not because he is poor, he remarks.

Public transport, especially a ‘Bus Rapid Transit System’ is the way to go, he advocates. A single exclusive bus lane can move 40,000 people an hour, a car lane 2,000 at best. Subways and trains can move about 10-12 per cent of the population but buses can get closer to peoples’ homes and offices and can move more people more cheaply and efficiently.

Developing cities such as Chennai should create extensive bus ways with exclusive lanes in the growth areas. Adequate systems for getting people on board and off should also be provided with prepaid smart cards and bus stations.

Divya Trivedi, Ahmedabad, adds: Gujarat’s urban population is growing fast and in the next five decades, the percentage of the State’s urban population is to reach 75 per cent, noted Mr Penalosa.Addressing Nirman, a conference on construction organised by the Gujarat Institute of Civil Engineers and Architects, he said if the State has to reach the predicted level of urbanisation it means that 80 per cent of the State’s urban centres are yet to be built.

Mr Penalosa said the needs of the city depend on its political decisions.

“A good city is one where the needs of children or elderly people are taken care of. A good city is more about architecture and not engineering.”

Indian cities should not entirely copy from the developed nations, instead try to learn from their mistakes and show respect for human dignity in planning for the future. The city needs more public transport systems in order to avoid traffic jams in future. Increase in usage of public transport reflects a good quality of life.

On the recently inaugurated BRTS in Ahmedabad, he said it should spread to more of downtown, to the most congested roads of the city to benefit the common man and the pedestrian.

Another high profile project of the State Government is the Sabarmati Riverfront that is jointly being developed by public and private parties. Mr Penalosa congratulated the project developers but added that such projects should be more for public interest rather than private.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 22, 2009)
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