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Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Streetcar Named Disaster

Cars are at the heart of urban traffic problems

In London, a congestion tax on private cars levied in decreasing radials from the town centre makes people think twice before embarking on a journey into town by car. Electric and hybrid vehicles are, however, exempt from this tax. Prohibitive parking rates in Manhattan achieve much the same goal, making it unfeasible to use private cars. In Singapore, the registry of private vehicles takes the form of an auction. With bid amounts sometimes higher than the cost of the car, few can afford the price. 

    Creating a range of disincentives, cities around the world have found ingenious ways to curb the growing menace of the private car. Viewed in the 1950s as a symbol of personal freedom and the good life, the car is now – in the West, at least – symptomatic of all that is wrong with urban life: pollution, overcrowding, congestion and urban blight. 
    India is another story. In Delhi, every day a thousand new vehicles are added to the traffic stream. While this is a matter of some pride amongst those who feel that more cars are a sign of progress, the inability of city roads to accommodate them has produced unmanageable 
congestion, jams and increasing time periods for travel. Bangalore's urban transport ministry estimates that over Rs 30,000 crore are required to upgrade road infrastructure that includes new flyovers, freeways, freight corridors, terminals etc just to keep up with the present statistics. Mumbai, meanwhile, has found a unique solution to the city's traffic snarls. Local police have created 'silence zones' along the busiest roadways to prevent harassed drivers stuck in traffic jams from honking. 
    Are these sane solutions to the country's mounting urban problems? Shouldn't a restric
tion on vehicle numbers become essential in these circumstances? Most western cities have consciously developed new routes through town that give residents a better, greener option. In Copenhagen, a free cycle policy allows anyone to pick up a bicycle from any of the innumerable stands dotting the city, after paying a 10-kroner deposit. The deposit is returned at any stand upon the return of the bicycle. Could Park Street in Kolkata, or the old quarters in Ahmedabad or Hyderabad, benefit from a similar scheme? 
    In fact, the case for alternative forms of transport can be strengthened only if simultaneously a serious workable policy on car restriction is proposed. Along the East Coast 

of the US, many communities like Reston and Columbia are designed only for pedestrians. Cars are restricted to lots closer to the highway. Often whole sections of the cityscape are realigned to create a more attractive form of travel. 
    In the university town of Louvain, cycle tracks are designed to be independent of the city roads – aligned instead with the park system, thereby separating polluting cars from non-polluting vehicles and encouraging more people to walk and cycle. On working days it is not unusual to find senior company executives 
on cycles, gliding past duck ponds and through groves of shady trees to their offices. 
    In India, along with monumental problems and annual shortfalls, the incomplete approach to city planning and design is compounded by the government's inability to take bold initiatives. Beyond elaborate studies and paper projects little gets implemented. 
    Private architects in Ahmedabad have suggested using the Sabarmati riverbank as a secondary transport link within the city. Others in Delhi have prepared plans to use the system of nallahs to create a green link between different city neighbourhoods. A long-standing study to ban cars from the centre of Connaught Circus awaits approval (the lack of political 
will and opposition from shop owners will, however, never allow such a scheme to pass). A detailed proposal to pedestrianise the road between Humayun's and Safdarjung's tombs, and create a historic walkway that merges Nizamuddin and Lodi Gardens into one complete experience also lies on a shelf. In a city designed and run by the middle class for itself, little else can be expected. 
    With growing car populations and a distressing displacement of the pedestrian, there is a yawning disparity between the space required and the space available in the city. Given the present state of Indian urban growth, obviously too radical a shift in transport planning may not be possible. 
But if ever there was a need to re-examine new forms of movement in the city for imaginative solutions, it is now. 
    Transport planners know very well that it is possible to link all points in the city through the subway, buses, cycle-rickshaws and pedestrian sidewalks and so make travel less painful, and douse the rage that overcomes every driver when he takes to the street. With the growing legion of car manufacturers and owners, the battle, however, seems already lost. 
    The writer is an architect.

This road leads to nowhere


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