If you ask a city dweller what troubles her more — traffic or pollution — she would most likely give you a stare. Of course, it is both and equally so. But in our quest to tackle both, we often forget that the distance we travel daily is the biggest contributor to both.
The United Nations’ Shanghai Manual for Urban Development (2012) has proposed a strategy for developing an urban transport solution — ‘avoid, shift and improve’. The ‘avoid’ strategy addresses the question as to why the citizen has to travel long distances. The ‘shift’ strategy addresses how she travelled, or the mode used, and the ‘improve’ strategy, an incremental one, focuses on how to improve the systems through technology and better transport practices.
Our overwhelming focus has been on the ‘shift’ strategy, i.e. how to shift people from private transport to public transport or non-motorised transport. In the process the ‘avoid’ strategy is getting short shrift. Contrary to what the Shanghai Manual suggests, we find that the strategy, which seeks to avoid unnecessary travel and reduce the distance covered, is not given enough attention. It has two components: An urban master plan and an information communication technology (ICT) component. The first makes use of transit-oriented development, mixed-use development techniques, etc to plan cities around transport rather than the other way around. Thus, if we have our offices, shops and homes in the same neighbourhood, our need to travel is reduced. ICT gives us the option of accessibility without having to be mobile. For example, as governments make more services online, they reduce the need for people to travel. As companies encourage work from home, the average distance travelled by its employees is reduced. As more people shop online, the traffic and pollution caused by individual trips to shopping places reduces.
Unless we identify ICT as an integral component of a sustainable urban accessibility solution, we cannot design our incentive and disincentive structure around it. Thus, in G2C (government-to-citizen) activities, where both online and offline processes are available, online routes can be made free of cost, whereas over-the-counter services can be charged, thus discouraging people from travelling to government offices. Neighbourhood common service centres can facilitate online applications, helping people in rural areas. Governments can decide to cut down on meetings and favour video-conferences (VCs). Courts can also conduct hearings through VCs.
A much bigger role can be played by the private companies, which can be encouraged to calculate the travel footprint of their employees. Further, they can be incentivised to reduce it through tax measures or by allowing them to include activities such as corporate social responsibility. The right incentives will encourage companies to innovate and find solutions to reduce their travel/carbon footprints.
As our cities get smarter, a new slogan — ‘more MB and less km’ — may be one to adopt and work on.
Kannan Gopinathan, an IAS officer, is sub-divisional officer (civil), Hnahthial, Mizoram
The views expressed are personal