Pedestrian accessibility should become the first step in an enlightened urban transport policy.
The rapid growth in automobile use in India is causing a wide range of adverse impacts, even as it provides mobility to millions of people and contributes to employment generation and the economy. While traffic congestion and emissions have attracted much policy attention, perhaps the most serious of these impacts, in health and welfare terms, result from road traffic accidents. Annual road traffic deaths in India have increased from 15,000 in 1971 to over 100,000, nearly a tenth of all such deaths worldwide. Pedestrians and cyclists, the most vulnerable road users, account for the bulk of road fatalities, followed by motorised two-wheeler riders. Thus, the road users and modes that are the least responsible for traffic fatalities and other urban transport impacts are the most adversely affected. While what attention that this serious problem gets focusses on fatalities, there is a substantially larger number of injuries. Tragic as traffic deaths are, injuries are no less so; they occur during the most productive phase of life, and economically devastate families. Traffic-related injuries, already the ninth leading cause of deaths globally, are projected by the World Health Organisation to become the fifth leading cause of death, ahead of all cancers, by 2030.
The local impacts of motor vehicle activity are serious, but there are other important impacts, related to energy security and climate change. Road transport consumes around 50 per cent of the world’s petroleum, and petroleum demand is growing more rapidly in this than in other sectors. In India, road transport accounts for a third of petroleum consumption, which has nearly tripled in the last two decades. Three-quarters of it is imported. The future is worrisome, given projected trends in motor vehicle and other energy-intensive activities, vulnerability to world oil prices, and limited domestic reserves.
Urban transport policy in India has focussed predominantly on road infrastructure development, transport system management, and other technological measures to accommodate motor vehicles and mitigate their impacts. There is an important role for motor vehicles and infrastructure for them, but building our way out of the problem – by widening roads and building flyovers and highways – is not only very expensive but an exercise in futility, even in resource-rich contexts. While road-building may improve speeds for vehicles and ease congestion in the short term, it leads to ever more vehicle activity and congestion, and the need for even more roads. It is a vicious spiral over the longer term. Congestion continues to worsen on highways in the U.S., despite massive expenditures, which in 2000 amounted to around $350 million daily. Adding highway lanes to address traffic congestion has been likened to loosening one’s belt to cure obesity.
It is bad enough that urban transport policy in India is focussed predominantly on road capacity addition, given inadequate resources to accommodate even present levels of vehicle activity, and growing multiple demands on those resources. Worse, non-motorised modes are not only ignored but actively discriminated against. Footpaths, where they do exist, are largely unusable, on account of poor design and maintenance, obstructions including electrical equipment, uncollected garbage, parked vehicles and encroachment by local businesses. More distressingly, footpaths are being lost due to road widening. There are few if any facilities for pedestrians to cross roads safely and conveniently; where such facilities exist, they are spaced too far apart, and the crossing times are often inadequate. Hard, barricaded medians are increasingly erected to ensure smooth vehicle traffic. The pedestrian environment is so severely vitiated that walking, the most natural of human activities, has become an extremely unpleasant, if not a hazardous, activity. Indeed, in a nation of pedestrians, the pedestrian has been rendered a third class citizen.
While groups such as young children, the elderly, the disabled, and the urban poor, who often have no choice but to walk or cycle, are particularly disadvantaged and at serious risk of being hurt or killed in accidents, the lack of pedestrian accessibility affects all, since everyone, including vehicle users, is a pedestrian at some point. Further, the loss of pedestrian accessibility is a major contributor to other urban transport impacts. It is because it is so time consuming, if not unsafe, for people to walk even over short distances that many trips over these distances are by force of circumstance undertaken by vehicles. The largely avoidable use of vehicles for short-distance trips, which account for a significant proportion of all urban trips, exacerbates congestion, energy consumption and emissions, and renders walking, cycling, and public transit even more unviable, increasing the need for vehicle use. In short, planning for vehicles to the exclusion of other modes leads inexorably to ever more motor vehicle activity and impacts.
There is an urgent need, in order to effectively address the urban transport challenge, for an integrated approach that includes public transit that is reliable, convenient, affordable and widespread; pricing of road use that internalises, to the greatest extent possible, the social costs of urban transport, and provides incentives for minimising vehicle activity; and last but not the least, pedestrian accessibility as the very foundation of urban transport policy and planning.
Providing infrastructure and facilities for pedestrians (and cyclists) is only logical and fair, given that the users of these modes bear the brunt of fatalities and injuries, among other urban transport impacts. Secondly, the high population densities and intensively mixed land use that characterise Indian cities, along with the low income and vehicle ownership levels among the majority, make walking and other non-motorised modes both possible and necessary. These modes and public transit in fact account for the vast majority of urban trips, despite the natural advantages of urban form having been lost due to rapidly growing motor vehicle activity, and the poor quality of the pedestrian environment and public transit service. Making walking and cycling more safe and easy would help reduce short-distance motor vehicle trips, which are the most energy-consuming and polluting on a per-kilometre basis; allow all modes, including personal motor vehicles, to operate more efficiently; and render public transit attractive and effective, by improving access to it, and helping improve bus operational efficiency. As a result of these effects, it would contribute to the reduction of congestion, energy security, air quality and climate change goals with high cost-effectiveness, and obviate the need for expensive road capacity addition and end-of-pipeline technological cures.
Walking shares, already high despite adverse circumstances, could be higher still; walking and cycling are competitive in terms of door-to-door journey times with motor vehicles and public transit over short and medium distances, if adequate infrastructure and facilities are provided. The weather is undoubtedly a factor, but people tend to use these modes more as well as over longer distances when the quality of the pedestrian environment is improved. “Build it and they will come” is as true of pedestrians (and cyclists) as it is of vehicles. Tragically, while countries like the Netherlands, which have significantly higher income and car ownership levels, provide first-class pedestrian and bicycle facilities as a matter of enlightened urban transport policy, walking and cycling are considered to be retrograde in a nation such as India characterised by poverty. The key lesson from the Netherlands experience is that concerted public action has a crucial role in limiting vehicle use, notwithstanding high incomes and vehicle ownership.
In is encouraging in this regard that the National Urban Transport Policy, announced in 2006, stresses the importance of putting people before motor vehicles, and commits itself to prioritising non-motorised transport. At the same time, large amounts of funds are being made available for urban infrastructure under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, including, very recently, for the purchase of 40,000 buses. These funds will hopefully be used to ensure that infrastructure and facilities for pedestrians (and cyclists) are incorporated as an essential component of all urban transport projects, and are provided across cities. Doing so would minimise the need for, and curb rapid growth in, motor vehicle activity, enhance the effectiveness of public transit, promote liveability, and help achieve an urban transport system that is safe, cost-effective, resource conserving, environmentally benign, and that benefits all, including vehicle users.
(Madhav Badami teaches in the School of Urban Planning and the McGill School of Environment at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. A longer version of this article was published recently in the Economic and Political Weekly.)