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Manifesto for Urban Accessibility in India
Traffic scene on Old Madras Road in Bangalore. Infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists in Indian cities is glaringly absent. Photo via Jace.

Infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists in Indian cities is glaringly absent, as seen here on Old Madras Road in Bangalore. Photo via Jace.

In my introductory post, I mentioned my interest in writing about how we can use sustainable transportation development to ensure increased accessibility for poor city dwellers, particularly in developing countries.

Sudhir Chella Rajan, a professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras and Coordinator of their Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, recently published a fantastic overview of sustainable accessibility in the Indian context but with global implications. He talks about how a focus on accessibility improves life not only for the poor but also for all urbanites, and his article highlights issues in India that got me interested in this side of sustainable mobility, which I’ll be discussing in upcoming posts.

Follow U.S. or Northern European Model?

Rajan says Indian policy makers find themselves at a critical juncture: they appear unsure of whether to follow the United States’ 20th century model of car-dominated development – favoring increased motorization and suburbanization – or  Northern Europe’s more progressive model of giving pedestrians, bikes and buses the priority over private vehicles.

The Access Movement

In support of Northern European-style development, Rajan notes that the “access movement” is gathering steam on Indian streets, shifting the transport paradigm from individual mobility to access to goods and services. This is an inherently pro-poor movement, but could also bring substantial benefits to all Indian city dwellers.

The access movement centers on the premise that what all people need most is easy access to workplaces, schools, hospitals, and so on, and that personal transport is just one way to reach this goal. Other ways – more sustainable and progressive ways – include investing in infrastructure for walking and bicycling and public transit, particularly buses.

Accessible but Deadly

After all, as Rajan emphasizes,  most Indian cities are actually ideal for biking and walking: they grew in an accessible fashion over the centuries. Proof of their accessibility is that even today, the majority of passenger trips in most Indian cities are under five kilometers – a very bikeable or walkable distance. But walking or biking nowadays means risking your life in an attempt to dart through reckless drivers on the world’s deadliest roads, as The New York Times reported yesterday.

In India, motorization has expanded much more quickly than the development of transportation infrastructure that supports all the cars, along with bikers and pedestrians. See our previous post summarizing a McKinsey report that explains how “if India continues with its current unplanned urbanization path, it will result in a sharp deterioration in the quality of life in its cities, putting even today’s rates of economic growth at risk.”

The Traditional Transport Lobby

As India grows, the “established interests'” (i.e. car manufacturers, petrol suppliers, road contractors, traditional transport engineers, urban planners and the urban elite) continue to promote the U.S.-style automobile-based development. Many lobby for Indians’ “freedom for auto-mobility” as if it were a basic human right for anyone wealthy enough to afford it. And still too many Indian officials focus only on making new highways and widening roads, rather than addressing the urgent need for footpaths, cycling lanes and pedestrian crossings.

At India’s current rate of growth and motorization, this is an entirely unsustainable policy. It is also an incredibly regressive one, unjustly favoring the rich and punishing the poor, as Rajan highlights well:

Most significantly, what remains unstated is that private vehicles serve only a small fraction of the population that do not pay the full costs of occupying the road, polluting the air, draining precious foreign exchange by guzzling imported oil, causing accidents, and destroying ecosystems. It is the poor who engage sustainably with urban space and subsidize others by walking or cycling for short trips and taking public transport to cover longer distances, and utilizing every opportunity available to consume locally available goods and services.

Access Movement Gaining Ground

Fortunately, the access movement is gaining voice in its challenge to the “established interests.”

Across India’s broad socioeconomic spectrum, activists for accessibility have emerged in recent years. Salman Khan, a widely-idolized Bollywood actor, supported Car Free Day and evening bike rides in Mumbai; bicycle rickshaw drivers protested to regain their rights to the road after Delhi banned cycle rickshaws; the mayors of Pune and Chennai have promoted cycling in their cities, and giant companies like Infosys scatter hundreds of bikes around their campuses, banning fossil fuel vehicles. In the meantime, city planners across the country have been experimenting with bus rapid transit (BRT) systems.

Flyovers like Vakola Flyover in Mumbai increasingly link wealthier urbanites to business and commercial centers, inhibiting these citizens' integration and interaction with the rest of the city. Photo via Swami Stream.

Flyovers like Vakola Flyover in Mumbai increasingly link wealthier urbanites to business and commercial centers, inhibiting these citizens' integration and interaction with the rest of the city. Photo via Swami Stream.

Accessibility Brings Benefits for All

Focusing on sustainable accessibility would benefit not only the poor but all Indians. Rajan cites a recent study in The Lancet, which concludes that even modest improvements in pedestrian/cyclist accessibility in Delhi would bring greater carbon reductions and health benefits (from cleaner air and fewer accidents, as well as increased exercise, thus reducing obesity and diabetes) than technological improvements for motor vehicles.  Such benefits are universal, reaching even the policy makers themselves!

The alternative as it has emerged in many Indian cities is more development of gated communities in the exurbs with flyovers connecting them to commercial centers. This, Rajan warns, will lead to a scenario “more stark than that portrayed in dystopian films like Blade Runner or District 9.” Such development generates more apartheid urban spaces (already a problem in India), “in which a small segment of society traverses freeways in air-conditioned vehicles and remains completely isolated from the parallel world of an underpaid workforce that provides them their services, who are in turn forced to navigate large spatial distances at great difficulty and personal risk.”

Following the access movement toward sustainable accessibility is the way for Indian cities – and many cities in other developing countries – to avoid such a dismal future, protect community life and the poorest citizens, and develop in a sustainable fashion.

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