Ahead of his time: Gandhi’s ideals on sustainable transport and urban planning
Gandhi statue

Gandhi held many ideals that remain relevant to issues in sustainable urban transport and urban planning today. Photo by Art Around.

Yesterday, India celebrated the 144th birth anniversary of its greatest leader, Mahatma Gandhi, a visionary whose fundamental principles and vision are universally applicable – especially to sustainable transport. As an individual working in this field, I felt I must share my interpretation and compiled wisdom about Gandhi, his philosophy, and its relevance to the sustainable transport sector.

Gandhi was strong supporter of cycling and walking, who can perhaps be credited with starting the sustainable transport movement in India. In his book Hind Swaraj, he defined the principle of sustainability as, “More from less for more”. I would like to share a few anecdotes about Gandhi, and some of his famous quotes, because they reflect his concern and vision for a great cause: sustainable urban mobility.

Gandhi’s daily routine embraced sustainable modes of transport

Gandhi’s daily routine included walking nearly 18 kilometers (11.2 miles). He averaged 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) during the Dandi march, and walked a total of almost 80,000 kilometers (49,710 miles) throughout his campaigns from 1913 to 1938. That’s enough to walk around the world twice! Gandhi loved walking and often called it the “prince of exercises”. As a student in London, he saved money by walking several miles every day.

Gandhi also had a strong passion for cycling. When he moved to Ahmedabad in 1915, he rode his bicycle from Gujarat Vidyapith to Sabarmati Ashram. In Johannesburg, South Africa, he was the first person to oppose and protest a law which discriminated against people cycling on the streets. He wrote in the journal Indian Opinion opposing a move by the Johannesburg Town Council requiring every native who held a cycle permit and rode a cycle within the municipal area to wear a numbered badge on his left arm. Interestingly, two post-independence laws, the Delhi Municipal Act of 1960 and Punjab Cycle Rickshaw Act of 1976, kept similar restrictions and licensing systems in place for cycle rickshaws until this year – they were recently declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of India.

Using walking to organize

Gandhi’s famous Salt March, also known as the Salt Satyagraha, began with the Dandi March on March 12,1930. This march became an important symbol of the Indian independence movement. As he traveled on the 24-day-long, 390 kilometer (240 mile) march to produce salt without paying a tax imposed by the British, a growing number of Indians joined him along the way. When he broke the salt laws at 6:30 am on April 6, 1930, it sparked widespread acts of civil disobedience against the British Raj salt laws by millions of Indians. Simply put, Gandhi used walking as a tool to organize his fellow Indians.

Gandhi continually emphasized the importance of walking and cycling. When asked for advice, he once told someone, “I hope you are careful about eating. You may use a bicycle, but you should also walk daily”. After a small incident on bicycle Gandhi wrote to his friend about bicycle maintenance, “The bicycle incident yesterday was not a happy one. A carpenter will always keep his tools ready for use. A typist will keep his typewriter in good repair and a rider will keep his horse in good stead. Similarly a bicycle should always be kept clean, oiled and ready for use. Otherwise don’t have a bicycle at all”. Another time, Gandhi wrote to a friend, “If, however, you are determined to work in the city, you should stay in the city. You are not strong enough to go to the city and return on bicycle”. With this comment, Gandhi referenced the size of cities and their human scale.

Applying Gandhi’s principles to urban planning

Today’s urban planning is dominated by motorized vehicles, and as a result, the distance we travel between work and home is constantly increasing. The quote above from Gandhi reflects his concern for better urban planning, and where people should live. Today most of our Indian cities face similar challenges. Gandhi’s principle, “More from Less for More” (MLM) is all about getting greater performance from fewer resources for more people, and not just for bigger profits – this principle should be followed with the goals of creating a more equitable society and realizing a sustainable future for mankind in mind. That’s what Gandhi would want us to aim for in today’s urban planning.

It’s impossible to imagine what might have happened if had India followed Gandhi’s ideals on sustainable transport and urban planning from its founding, and given support to the local informal sector, which includes non-motorized transport. Although it’s sad to see that none of the principles given by Gandhi are currently being adopted into India’s transportation policies, it’s not too late to implement them. It’s time for India to revive the spirit of our cities by examining the strengths and weaknesses our own existing transport system, rather than blindly accepting all western models. It is high time we act in order to create a sustainable future for our present and future generations by practicing the principles of someone whose vision was way ahead of his time.

This post is a cross post from the author’s blog. Navdeep Asija is the founder of Ecocabs, a cycle rickshaw service available by telephone, and the 2011 recipient of the National Award of Excellence from India’s Ministry of Urban Development.

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