Rajkamal Rao

From New Delhi to New York, it’s hell on the streets

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on August 31, 2018

Traffic snarls: A common sight   -  The Hindu

Rapid urban growth is a huge problem not just in India, but worldwide

One of the favourite pastimes that Indians indulge in over a cup of tea is to complain about two things they have little control over: traffic and explosive, unplanned urban growth. And for good reason.

Petty corruption has led to local governments looking the other way when greedy landlords have continued to overbuild multi-family apartment homes in zones previously restricted for single family dwellings.

In other cases, complete lack of coordination among government departments has created havoc for city residents. Take parking. As roads get crowded with traffic, there’s little room for parking on the main thoroughfares which house a city’s commercial establishments. So parking spills over to surrounding residential streets, which are already full of parked cars owned by neighbourhood residents.

Every municipality has a regulation buried deep in its rule books, which says that each household has to make room within its allotted plot area for parking its vehicles — leaving the narrow residential streets open to traffic — but this is rarely enforced. Meanwhile, over at state Road Transport Offices, new vehicles are released to public roads every day, creating a headache for police departments who are tasked with keeping already notoriously slow traffic moving along safely, while still responsible for enforcing no-parking regulations.

If there’s any consolation to be had, Indians are not alone in their plight. America, still the favourite country for millions of Indians, is facing serious urbanisation problems too.

Absolute nightmare

In big cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston — the preferred destinations for India’s youth — urban growth is an absolute nightmare and seriously impacting quality of life. But curiously, not because of lack of planning. On the contrary, poor governance, over-zealous planning, extremely burdensome regulations and corporate lobbying have paralysed cities to a point where these cities are becoming unlivable.

New York City is a perfect example of what happens when too many cooks tend to the broth. Despite collecting billions of dollars each year in toll taxes from drivers crossing the city’s bridges and tunnels — tolls meant to subsidise the upkeep of the city’s subway system — poor administration has resulted in extremely overcrowded and habitually late trains.

Fights with the federal government over funding have left key urban train tracks coming into the city dangerously under-maintained. A proposal to double track capacity is expected to cost a whopping $20 billion and take eight years to complete — yes, eight years — and this too has stalled. The net result is that public transit in America’s most well-known city is a mess.

But so is traffic on New York’s roads. For years, the city’s Taxi and Limousine commission tightly controlled the number of medallions it issued to Yellow Cab drivers. But these drivers rarely visited the outer boroughs preferring to serve the busy streets of Manhattan. When ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft got into the game, they became a key cog in the transportation wheel ferrying residents in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens around and in to Manhattan.

Before the city noticed it, there were so many ride-sharing cars that some estimates put them at four times the number of Yellow Cabs. Traffic has thus slowed to a crawl — and bus rides from origin to destination can now take up to two hours. In August, the city decided to freeze the number of ride-shared cars for a year trying to close the barn door after the animals have left.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the problem is so bad that parts of the city represent third-world conditions. Excessive zoning regulations have prevented new housing units from being built. A 2-BR apartment in San Francisco rents for nearly $4,000 a month. The rule of thumb is that housing should cost about 30 per cent of a family’s disposable income, so families have to make $160,000 a year to afford these rents. This is an extremely tall threshold for hundreds of thousands of people working in low-level service jobs earning the city’s minimum wage of $15 an hour (about $30,000 a year). How can these families ever find a home to rent?

So homelessness in the Bay Area has skyrocketed with people sleeping in public parks and under highway overpasses. Public defecation is a common issue in one of the wealthiest urban districts in the world. Unable to pay rents, there are people who sleep in cars on public streets. Some ride in long distance buses for the sole purpose to rest and sleep, making several round trips a single day because they work in the city but they have no place to live.

Yes, this is America’s urban landscape today. So the next time you become so animated discussing India’s problems that you let your tea cool too much, relax. You’re not alone.

The writer is Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC, Texas.

Published on August 31, 2018

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