Building sustainable cities

Let’s be mindful of what we build

When I heard the news that Rapid Metro is facing an uncertain future due to financial losses, a lot of mixed thoughts went by. That the project was ill-conceived, it didn’t cater well to the city’s real traffic needs, there were vested interests in building it etc. But one overriding thought was: will urban planners learn a simple lesson that one needs to think twice before building any new infrastructure in the city, especially in the developed parts of this city.   

When planned, Rapid Metro was to be the pride of Gurugram, the crowning glory of its majestic Golf Course road. Gurugram was in fact the only city in the country to boast of both inter-city and intra-city metro rail. Investments have first sunk in to build it and then to sustain and promote it, but it could never get enough ridership to make itself sustainable. The Golf course road itself today is neither here or there – on one hand it has no room for pedestrian or cyclist movement, and on the other it does not assure of a hassle-free driving experience to car owners given the frequent traffic congestion at its its tail-end.  

There are other examples of ill-thought infrastructure decisions. We don’t think twice before chopping off the green belts on both sides of the road for the sake of road widening. The thing with road widening is that there is no end to it. The moment you widen roads, no sooner do more cars occupy and choke up the road, making a mockery of the exercise. The traffic situation becomes the same in no time; the real loss is of green vegetation that is so very crucial for the city. Cutting large mature trees cannot be equated to planting ten times the number of saplings, because only a few survive to become mature trees, and that too in a good number of years. Besides, we need to fix the real problem (of restricting private traffic on roads) head on, and not please ourselves with quick-fix solutions in the interim. As the experts say, road widening is akin to loosening our belts to accommodate our larger waist size! Attack the root cause (the flab), do not resize the belt.

Another bad decision has been to build foot-over-bridges on city junctions where they were not needed. Some of these high structures have remained unused and are poorly maintained, even inaccessible in some places. In fact, it is not rare spectacle to see motorcyclists and cyclists using them as a short cut rather than pedestrians. People on foot (especially elderly) find climbing up and climbing down stairs too cumbersome. They prefer the ground road crossing which is shorter and quicker means to cross the road despite the risk of accidents. In the evenings, another issue is these structures become desolate places and therefore unsafe. Pedestrian subways too remain unused for the same reason. They are dark, dingy places, often attracting anti-social elements and remain largely unused.

Underpasses that get water-logged and flooded in rains due to lack of proper drainage are another nuisance. They need to be well-lit with regular power supply, well-maintained and have proper signages. Initially, due to lack of information and education, people even used the uni-directional underpasses for moving from the other side. This can have disastrous consequences. Speed-breakers too need to put at the right places; faulty speed-breakers can increase incidence of accidents rather than reducing them. Besides, infrastructure like multi-level parking have failed in some cities like Chandigarh. So, one needs to undertake a complete feasibility study before constructing such massive structures.

The basic problem with our city’s planning is that more and more capital infrastructure is being planned, allocated and invested for cars, and continuously less and less for public transport, cyclists and pedestrians. We need to reverse this trend. After all, we have to move people not cars and majority of people on our roads are not car-owners but people who use public or non-motorised modes.

Also, each time the solution does not necessarily lie in creating “hard” infrastructure. Sometimes innovative “soft” solutions such as geometric improvement of road intersections, improved design, reducing encroachments, improving markings on roads, traffic and road signages can help achieve greater all-round mobility and safety of all users. Besides using policy interventions such as disincentivising car use, innovative parking policies, congestion pricing, creating low carbon emission zones and introducing vehicle quota can also work wonders. Other “soft” solutions include operational improvements such as better traffic management. Still others are bringing behavioural and attitudinal changes in citizens. An aware and informed citizenry can question authorities on reckless decisions such as removal of green belts and creation of unnecessary, un-useful infrastructure.       

Let’s not forget that a city is not modern by fast lane road networks or massive zig zag flyovers. It is modern when its infrastructure caters to all, is user-friendly and sustainable in the long run. Next time, when we think of building new infrastructure in the city, let’s think twice. Do we really need that capital investment? Can we not divert a small part of that huge investment in making pavements across the city? Its high time we focus on simple solutions that cater to all citizens.    

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