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India: We must reclaim our city streets as social space

by Sanjib Baruah, 26 March 2009

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Telegraph (Guwahati) March 26, 2009

Time to reclaim the city streets for ’foot people’

Crossing the street has become a nightmare in many busy parts of
Guwahati today. For the old and the infirm, it is well nigh
impossible. Sometimes it seems as if the ’car people’ are at war with
the ’foot people.’ Even the simplest of daily chores is fraught with

Travelling back and forth between Guwahati and New York, I am struck
by how cities in India and those in richer countries are on two
completely different tracks. Just as Guwahati—like many other Indian
cities—becomes increasingly unfriendly to pedestrians and to those
using non-motorised modes of transport, one sees the opposite trends
in many Western cities.

Just the other day, New York’s mayor announced that two of the most
heavily congested stretches of Broadway—one of the city’s main
thoroughfares—would soon be turned into a car-free, pedestrian
space. Vehicles will no longer be allowed on what is probably
Manhattan’s busiest stretch, full of shops and theatres. The mayor’s
plan, as the New York Times puts it, is a move "to change the way the
city thinks of its streets, making them more friendly to pedestrians
and cyclists and chipping away at the dominance of the automobile."

For Guwahati’s pedestrians and bicyclists, the outlook does not look
good. According to a 2007 study by the London-based International
Institute for Environment and Development, Guwahati is one the world’s
100 fastest-growing cities. That study relied on data from the second
half of the last century. Things have only accelerated since then and
we have seen the rapid increase in the number of automobiles on the
streets of Guwahati in recent years.

A few years ago, flyovers and wider roads seemed like a solution. By
now it is clear that they can provide only temporary relief. Many now
hope that an underground metro system, like that in Delhi and
Calcutta, would some day alleviate matters. But that is unlikely.

Those who think of the metro systems of New York, Paris or London as
models, says urban transportation expert Dinesh Mohan, do it out of
context. The settlement patterns of those cities are radically
different from Indian cities. The central business districts for
instance, are very large and dense; and a large number of people have
to come to the city centre to work. This pattern of living and working
is unlike that in modern Indian cities, where multiple and widely
scattered business centres have developed. Such settlement patterns
cannot support a high-capacity metro system. It is not surprising,
therefore, that both the Calcutta and Delhi metros are carrying a much
smaller percentage of passengers than originally projected, making
them extremely expensive in terms of public subsidy.

There are substantial health benefits to making streets friendlier to
pedestrians and non-motorised modes of transport. Among industrialised
countries, those that encourage high levels of ’active transportation’ —
that is where walking, bicycling and public transit account for high
numbers of daily trips—have low obesity rates. When transportation
systems discourage cycling and walking, the population gets less

There are solid environmental arguments as well for reducing our
reliance on motorised transportation. After all, automobiles are a
major contributor to greenhouse gases.

How can the transportation trends in our cities be reversed? Recent
statements on national transportation policy reflect a desire to bring
about important changes. The Centre now requires that requests for
funds for urban transportation projects—for flyovers, road-widening
or mass rapid transit system— have to be accompanied by comprehensive
mobility plans. Pedestrians, non-motorised and public transportation
are supposed to receive priority. There is also growing agreement
among experts that modern bus rapid transit systems with dedicated bus
lanes that make full use of information technology are more cost
effective and sustainable than underground metro systems.

But historically, technocratic solutions have not been enough to make
cities more liveable. Champions and advocates of alternative transport
solutions, and activists and visionaries who care for a city’s quality
of life have been equally important.

For instance, knowledgeable New Yorkers attribute a lot of the good
things about the city’s present quality of life, to policies and
practices regarding its roads and zoning laws, to urban activist and
thinker Jane Jacobs. I owe the phrases ’foot people’ and ’car people’
to her. In explaining the enduring influence of her 1961 book The
Death and Life of Great American Cities, she said three decades later
that her book had "collaborated with foot people by giving legitimacy
to what they already knew for themselves." Experts by contrast, "did
not respect what foot people knew and valued."

Whether or not Guwahati becomes more liveable will depend to a great
extent on its citizens. Our technocrats, bureaucrats and politicians
cannot make this happen on their own, not even with the help of the
fanciest of foreign consulting firms that they are turning to. We need
urban activists and visionaries to fight for the rights of pedestrians
and bicyclists, to demand and promote the use of public transportation, car-free zones, and a whole lot more.

We must reclaim our city streets as social space, and not let them
become sterile spaces of mobility.

Sanjib Baruah is professor at Bard College, New York and the Centre
for Policy Research, New Delhi.