Review: Urban Mobility India 2010

The 3rd edition of the annual “flagship event” of the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) of India’s federal government, Urban Mobility India 2010 was held in New Delhi between December 3rd and 5th, 2010 with the aim of creating “Accessible and Inclusive Cities”. This article reviews the main themes and happenings of the event, and though it may appear to nit-pick, it does appreciate the effort of the organisers in organising the event, and holds that perhaps the biggest achievement of the event was to be able to have a serious debate on controversial topics (like the Delhi Metro or flyovers).

Highlights:

A Research Conference. An Expo. With lots of participation.

Substantively, the event featured a research symposium which had 8 technical sessions with 24 presentations, 2 panel discussions and 4 partner events. It had as many as 700 participants, 250 of them being students and young professionals, selected by the organisers as “Fellows”. A special expo was organised along with the event, which ensured large participation from the transport industry and bureaucrats.

Some things were preached. Their opposites, practiced.

Very difficult to access by public transport and one of the most exclusive places in the city, the venue of the event, The Grand, Vasant Kunj, was probably chosen because of its proximity to Delhi Airport. “Meru Cabs”, a taxi service, was the “Official Sustainable Urban Transport Partner”. Sedans parked outside the venue were covered with promotional material for the event, claiming that the event was organised to promote sustainable mobility.

Flyovers get criticised. And Defended.

Very early in the conference, delivering his Keynote Address on “Urban Transportation Research in India” Prof. Dinesh Mohan (IIT Delhi) unequivocally criticised flyovers. His point was made when he called for more research and funding for urban transportation research: “I request the Ministry to stop funding flyovers, and start building Centres of Excellence (CoE) in transportation research. One flyover destroys the city, and one CoE can rejuvenate many.”

On the other hand, Prof. R Sivanandan and Rahul Tiwari from IIT Madras recommended 91 KMs (!) of “Access Controlled Elevated Subways” for the city of Chennai, to improve travel times (by 25%) and reduce congestion on major roads.

The audience got quite agitated with the idea of these elevated roads, and troubled the researchers, earning a thank you from the moderator for being critical. The moderator also took the opportunity to remind the panellists that they should remember the theme of the conference (accessible & inclusive cities). The flyover debate found its way in many other panels and discussions, helped by other presentations such as those by Kee Yoon Hwang from South Korea, who, with much elegance described the demolition of flyovers in Seoul (flyover destruction tally in South Korea: 2 in 2009, 5 in 2010, and 9 in 2011) to recover the Cheonggye-cheon stream and encourage predestrianisation in the city.

Moving people and not vehicles emerges as an important theme

Promoting non-motorised transport, public transport and discouraging personalised modes such as cars was a common theme across discussions. Except perhaps Prof. Dinesh Mohan’s slight disagreement. He could have said “Hey, look around you, please. Most people in our cities are poor, and they walk, and they cycle, and they use public transport. You don’t need to promote public transport, but improve public transport. You don’t need to promote pedestrians and cyclists, you need to protect pedestrians and cyclists”, but he was more polite than that. The point – that its the governments’ priorities that are wrong, and not the citizens, was well-made and well-understood.

Important outcomes in terms of ideas of this theme were providing better at grade pedestrian facilities (not skywalks or foot-over bridges), improving bus infrastructure and information, providing low floor buses, exploring options such as congestion pricing and Intelligent Transport Systems, etc. And yes, no road widening please. Congestion might be the only thing that will make people use public and non-motorised transport.

The Metro gets marginalised

The Delhi Metro, as well as other upcoming metro projects in Indian cities were discussed sparingly. While there were 8 presentations on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, there was not even one on the Metro. Interestingly, Metro Rail was mentioned in a presentation on Light Rail (Trams), where it’s average cost was compared to BRT systems and Trams (A BRT with new infrastructure would cost Rs. 30 – 90 crores per km, tramway between Rs. 90 – 240 crores per km and Metros Rs. 480 – 2400 crores per km).

Another speaker praised the metro for its disabled-friendly design and execution. This was until the final plenary, where Dr. M. Ramachandran, the erstwhile Secretary of MoUD who saw the execution of the Delhi Metro while in office, vigorously defended the project. This, as was expected, led to some caustic questions from the audience, who seemed to be more informed about the pros and cons of the Metro than Dr. Ramachandran. The moderator, K. C Sivaramakrishnan, himself a former secretary to the MoUD, could only point the audience towards Prof. Geetam Tiwari (IIT Delhi) who, along with others such as Prof. Dinesh Mohan have contributed to a growing critique of Metro Rail projects in India (and have instead argued for a reallocation of road space for all users, while prioritising bus and non-motorised users.) He said, “if you want to hear things against the Metro, talk to her. She can give a presentation for hours”.

Confused signals on parking. Despite the policy.

It was recognised and mentioned in the conference that the National Urban Transport Policy has a clear and unambiguous stance on parking policy: “Levy of a high parking fee that truly represents the value of the land occupied, should be used as a means to make the use of public transport more attractive. Preference in the allocation of parking space for public transport vehicles and non-motorized modes as well as easier access of work places to and from such spaces would go a long way in encouraging the use of sustainable transport systems.” Despite this, Ms. Megha Srivastava and Prof. Sanjay Gupta from School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi vouched for multi-level car parking facilities in the city of Delhi.

Mr. Shyam Khandekar of BDP India, an urban design studio, was more careful. He argued for priority to pedestrian infrastructure while lamenting the eagerness of cities to provide parking facilities but not housing to the poor (he also mentioned the fact that the space provided for housing to the poor is less than that required by a car for parking). BDP India’s plan for Mandakini Enclave, New Delhi did come under criticism, if only because it did not do enough in restricting car parking (BDP India’s plans provided for free parking for one car per family).

A posh event that could do with some radicalism

The main failure of Urban Mobility India lies in its inability to achieve the goal it set for itself, that of achieving “Accessible and Inclusive Cities”. One would have been happy to see the organisers failing in the pursuit of this goal, if only a serious attempt had been made. But at times, “accessible and inclusive cities” looked like empty rhetoric.

As an event, Urban Mobility India was pulled in several directions.

A large number of senior bureaucrats from the Central government as well as cities were bent on showcasing their successes while not appreciating any argument critical of existing approaches.

That some of the dignitaries yawned or slept on stage while others were presenting did not help create a good impression of the event.

Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Chief Minister of Haryana, showing his support for PRT

Many industry-wallas, such as ULTra-Fair Wood Pte Ltd, manufacturers of Personal Rapid Transit systems, were a significant part of the proceedings, and managed to get some serious media attention from the event (indeed, 8 out of the 23 media articles coming out of Urban Mobility India were solely about the PRT).

The ultimate redemption of the event was probably in the form of an audience that took the agenda of accessible and inclusive cities with the seriousness it deserves, and debates that this audience forced the presenters and organisers to acknowledge. That not all presenters and researchers were averse to these questions gives us hope.

About the author:

Aashish Gupta is a student of Development Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Aashish is writing a masters thesis on social protection in India. He was also a Fellow at the Urban Mobility Conference 2010.

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