The world currently has 1 billion motor vehicles and this figure is likely to go up to 2 billion in the next 10 years. Apart from congestion and emission, this growth of motor vehicles will have a serious impact on road traffic fatalities. The World Health Organization has predicted that road traffic fatalities will be the 5th most leading cause of death worldwide by 2030, and the top 4 would be related to cardiac and respiratory diseases which are due to lack of physical activity and pollution caused by transport. India currently witnesses 150,000 road traffic fatalities out of which about 1/5th occur in urban areas. For example, 75% of victims in Bangalore were pedestrians, cyclists or other non-motorised transport users.
India’s National Urban Transport Policy, 2006 (NUTP) has an underlying message, ‘cities are for people, not vehicles’. Though this is a very strong and progressive message, but the same has not been translated into action in cities. The majority of the Indian cities are still focussed on building more roads, flyovers, and expressways, as a result of which congestion is rising rapidly. In many progressive cities of the world, concentrated efforts are being taken to avoid such dependency on motorized travel and cities are focusing on promoting Non-motorised Transport (NMT).
According to Gurgaon’s Integrated Mobility Plan, the city has an average trip length of only 7 km with an average speed of 23 km/hr. Gurgaon currently has a very high share of walking and cycling, with around 33%. However, the roads with usable footpath account for less than 23% and the city does not even have a single kilometer of the dedicated cycle track. These statistics clearly highlight the plight on NMT in the city where even though 1/3rd of the population moves on non-motorized modes, there is hardly any effort to create an infrastructure that can promote or even preserve them.
While Gurgaon continues to manage with such an unsustainable method of development, progressive cities around the world are showing us the path for sustainable development, one such city is Seoul in Korea. By the early 20th century, when Seoul was burgeoning into the megacity of 10 million as of today, the river was bordered by a slum and used as a dumping ground, resulting in an eyesore of polluted water. It seemed as a logical decision then to cover it up and build a freeway over it, way back in the 1950s. By 1976, the four-lane elevated Cheonggyecheon Freeway – similar to our very own NH 8 – stood as a symbol of the successful industrialization and modernization of Korea. What followed, however, was not only traffic and pollution but also the decline of downtown Seoul.
Moving on, in 2001, when Lee Myung-bak ran for Mayor of Seoul, one of his key campaign promises was to remove the Cheonggyecheon freeway and restore the river in order to revitalize the area economically. Lee did not waste any time implementing this project. He was elected Mayor in June 2001. A master plan for stream restoration was completed in February 2003. Freeway demolition began in June 2003 and was completed in September in the same year. Stream restoration began in July 2003 and was completed in September 2005, at about the same time when Lee’s four-year term ended. Millions of people celebrated the opening of the restored river. Lee was elected South Korea’s president in December 2007.
While the demolition of a flyover may not address all the issues related to mobility in cities, but such examples show the intent of the planners and that the most environment-friendly modes of transport do not become the most neglected modes of transport in cities. What can we learn from such examples? One thing to learn is that there is an urgent need to rationalize the space for various mobility modes in the city and promote the use of NMT because they are the most vulnerable user group. There is also an urgent need to create adequate pedestrian facilities that are safe and secure, for not only crossing the roads but also for moving along the roads. Lastly, we need to educate and sensitize our city planners and decision-makers that a developed city is not where poor travel by cars, but where rich prefer using non-motorized and public transport modes for their travel.