The fourth annual Urban Mobility India conference organised in Delhi from December 3 to 6 by the ministry of urban development was no doubt a useful exercise. It did well to give more focus on bicycles and public transport than the previous conference. But the venue itself was highly inaccessible, difficult to reach even by a private car, leave alone public transport.
It was not easy to locate even for the keynote address speaker Mr K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, a former secretary of urban development and chairman of the Centre for Policy Research. And he made this clear during his inaugural speech.
Even the venue in the previous year, the Grand Hotel, was far away from any mode of public transport. But the venue of the recent conference, the Manekshaw Centre, was also very exclusive since it was a military establishment and in the main hall ex army generals looked over you from walls on both the sides.
Both the venues were also highly opulent, one in the private sector and the other in the government sector. The Manekshaw Centre is a high ceiling glass structure near Dhaula Kuan which one can see on way to the New Delhi airport but one invariably takes the wrong route to it. The Centre has a very artistic interior but it is clearly not sustainable in terms of energy consumption and Indian climate.
But the Institute of Urban Transport and other organizations, which co-hosted the event, deserve some thanks for bringing together various sections from the mobility and transport industry, planners, administrators, engineers and activists .
However, the urban development minister, Mr Kamal Nath, was far less enthusiastic about public transport in his concluding speech unlike his predecessor , Mr S. Jaipal Reddy.
Mr Kamal Nath, who showed great enthusiasm for building highways in his previous role as minister for highways, laid much emphasis on selling of public land to raise resources. He also spoke of days when Delhi Metro will surpass London’s train network. But observers are skeptical about the overemphasis on Metro construction, which they say, is very expensive and with the same resources it is possible to provide a much more efficient road and footpath network.
Mr Jaipal Reddy, the present petroleum minister and former urban development minister, had at the previous conference strongly demanded withdrawal on taxes on public transport vehicles, sought higher taxes on motor cars and said that important functionaries must learn to travel by public transport. He had also lamented the lack of political will to promote public transport.
Mr Kamal Nath was gung ho about land monetization. But the real need for public transport undertakings is for more land, they should be acquiring more land if public transport is to play a bigger role in the country as envisaged by the national urban transport policy. They should not be selling their land. Sadly, the undertakings are selling away their precious land or contemplating giving it for car parking. And was the seasoned minister not aware of the notorious Adarsh land scam in Mumbai in which the rights over the land of the depot of the BEST bus undertaking in the elite Cuffe Parade area were given away for private luxury housing for powerful interests. These interests included two ex army generals whose portraits hung on the walls of the venue of the conference.
So far from strengthening public transport the rich and powerful and some in the government sector are actually weakening it, discrediting it.
And while there is an explosive increase in the number of private vehicles and road building for motor cars, there is a great poverty in the production of knowledge , or research in the mobility sector.
Concern over the quality and quantity of research was voiced in the concluding part of the day long session on research by two top transport experts from IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), Delhi, Dinesh Mohan and Geetam Tiwari, on the basis of the study they carried out of the work done by prominent institutions including IITs and NITs (national institute of technology).
Geetam Tiwari said much of the research was from the perspective of engineering and there was need for an inter disciplinary approach.
Dinesh Mohan said only five to 10 per cent of the research was of a standard quality and there was little by way of a peer review, rigorous analysis of this research. China had greatly overtaken India in research. It will take India years of research to reach the current level of research in China. He called for settting up of a national institute for studying transport . IITs have huge land which is not optimally used. There was also scope for promoting water transport in Kerala, he said. There was a conspicuous absence of transport economists. We have to invest in more facilities for research, we may make mistakes but in the end we will save a lot.
He also said much of traditionally thinking has been turned upside down .It is now recognized that one way streets are not good for the environment, and speed should not be treated as sacrosanct. One may go faster with more speed but it also means we have to travel farther and farther with more energy consumption. One has to look for solutions like Slow Cities.
He also called for reduction in the cost of education. Not much research is being done now because parents say they have already spent heavily on education and they may not like the children to spend time on research which brings in little money. Besides, rich people’s children do not want to go in for research.
Mr Amitabh Kundu, professor in the Jawaharlal Nehru university, said much more research was needed in the transport field from the point of view of social sciences.
It was also pointed out that our institutes have to use books published abroad to do research here and books with a local content were desperately needed.
Mr O.P. Agarwal of World Bank said transport was much more than about engineering. It was about land use, gender, environment, energy and so on. It was a complex issue.
During the session on the rising threat of road crashes, Dr Chamaiparn Santikarn, regional adviser on injury and violence prevention, of the World Health Organisation, drew attention to advertisements given by motor cycle manufacturers which promoted dangerous driving. Some brands were advertised as family vehicles on which whole families could ride. This was clearly hazardous . The designs of some prominent brands of motor cycles manufactured in south east Asia did not adhere to the safety norms stipulated in the U.S. One website in Thailand showed school girls racing on motor bicycles to school.
Nurul Amin, a professor in the department of environmental science in Dacca, said it was dangerous to cross the road even in the prime area around the Parliament in Dacca.
Mr R.K. Singh, an urban planner from Gurgaon, called for restricting the number of cars a family could own and for giving incentives to people who walk and use public transport. Otherwise, the discussion would be futile, he said.
A strong plea to restrict space for parking of cars was made by Anumita Roychowdhury of the Centre for Science and Enviroment. In Delhi ten per cent of land was occupied by car parking which is equal to the city’s green area and pressure is growing for making available more space for parking on streets.
Hyderabad, she said, had contemplated reserving 60 per cent of built up area for car parking which was a matter of concern. Motorists enjoy a huge subsidy as they are charged a nominal fee for parking, Rs 10 per hour in Delhi against Rs 35 to Rs 40 which would be required to recover the cost of construction of car parking facility. But municipal bodies do not want to increase parking charges and want to recover the cost by granting more concessions to builders of car parks. Aizwal in Mizoram had taken the most dramatic decision on parking restriction. It laid down that one can buy a car only if one has an assured parking space.
Timid skeptics, who opposed increased use of bicycles, were rebutted by Sujit Patwardhan of Parisar Pune. Some people had argued that streets were too polluted for cycling and cyclists perspired heavily in the Indian climate. Patwardhan said pollution was caused mainly by motorists and the fault lay with heavy use of cars, not cycles. Besides, people riding bicycles to office, could be easily provided with facilities for taking a shower and changing clothes.
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About the author:
Vidyadhar Date is the author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority. Email firstname.lastname@example.org