Moving urban India after the Covid-19 pandemic | Opinion
In the aftermath of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, India is likely to experience a behavioural change in urban mobility. Due to lasting concerns about transmission and a newfound aptitude for working from home, we must expect an overall reduced demand and an increased preference for personal modes of transport. Unhindered, there is a high likelihood that there would be a permanent modal shift towards automobiles that would spatially and environmentally overload our cities and substantively impact our quality of life. Consequentially, this would threaten the financial viability of transit operators, especially those already stretched thin before the hit in ridership, and will further tilt the scales away from an optimal urban transportation landscape.
On the other hand, this crisis also presents an opportunity to guide the recovery of urban transport towards long-term development goals. Transport networks in Indian cities, whether public or private, road or rail-based, are severely overburdened. Investment in infrastructure to address more effective circulation and interchange of people and goods will have an economic multiplier effect — both job-creation in the present and boosting growth and productivity in the future. But where should we focus our energy and resources to have long-lasting and positive change while providing the most bang for our buck?
First, direct efforts towards accessibility instead of only mobility. While mobility focuses on movement of people and goods and the distances they cover, accessibility emphasises the ability of people to obtain the same goods, services, and activities without necessarily having to move, or at least move as much. Accessibility necessitates rethinking our cities to optimally integrate transportation with land uses to increase proximity, connectivity, and convenience. One method for this, Transit Oriented Development (TOD), has been discussed and studied in the Indian context for over a decade, with even a National TOD Policy framed in 2017, but little progress has been seen on ground. TOD is a concept that has come of age, and its implementation to enable access to live-work-play triangles without needing to commute long distances will be a game-changer for the urbanscape.
Second, facilitate the increased demand for personal modes through non-motorised modes, not just cars and two-wheelers. According to a United Nations Environment Programme report in 2014, even in a large city like Delhi, 48% of trips were less than two kilometres (km) and another 14% were between two and four kms. The high frequency of short distance commutes shows that alternative modes are easily manageable and feasible to adopt.
Kolkata has already taken the lead to cater to the recent increase in demand for cycling by permitting bicyclists to cut through neighbourhood lanes, thereby reducing their travel distance. While certainly a step in the right direction, this is not enough, and a strong enabling environment is necessary to create a lasting change. In addition to such policies that prioritise non-motorised modes, infrastructure such as designated spaces, routes and crossings to promote safety, bike-share systems to promote availability, and water fountains, wash facilities, and trees to promote user comfort are essential to make active modes more widespread than only the current captive users.
Third, integrate pricing of all modes of transport, private and public, to ensure continuity of public operators of transport in the context of reduced transit demand. Reduced transit ridership is not always a bad thing in the Indian context since public transit operators have historically operated at crush loads. However, it would place these operators in financial jeopardy with existential risks. The resulting reduced availability of transit will have a compounding effect by pushing users towards personal modes and will be detrimental to our clogged cities. Such a shift will affect the fabric of sustainable transport infrastructure of Indian cities and must be avoided in any scenario. We need pricing measures that disincentivise private vehicle adoption through congestion pricing, parking charges, and variable pricing to modulate demand, and channel revenues from these to cross-subsidise public transit.
With such measures, we will be able to moderate the demand for the private automobile, adequately increase transit supply, allow for social distancing, and cater to the long under-invested transportation infrastructure of our cities.
Transport is the backbone around which a city functions. A radical transformation is needed, and we must only look at instances of global cities that used transportation to rejuvenate and reinvent themselves away from the auto-centric cities they once were — Istanbul transformed itself through pedestrianisation, Amsterdam by inculcating a bicycling culture, Bogota through integrating bus networks and land use, and Seoul by turning urban highways into public places. India must use this crisis as an opportunity.