Climaction Metroplus

An Urban Conundrum

The world is urban – over half of the human population lives in cities and more head there every day. This fact makes the design and redesign of our cities an urgent and important task. Asimov wrote with such imagination in his Caves of Steel: painting a future where humanity has retreated into its cities – massive caves of steel where the population ate genetically modified strands of yeast, lived in efficient quarters where status is defined by whether one had a washbasin at home or not, dined in communal dining rooms and travelled by strips (moving pathways) or super-fast trains. There was little or no pollution and people lived highly regimented lives. The last word is an important one to consider as India strives to make her cities smarter.

Regimented. Very strictly organized or controlled. The psychological backbone necessary to increase the IQ of cities.

Last week, my family visited a park. Now, imagine in your mind’s eye how this might happen in a futuristic smart city: we would take some form of efficient transport there – bus or light rail, perhaps even walk. The transport would leave on time and be clean. Once there, I could flash my RuPay/Aadhar card to gain entry into the park (necessary to collect preferred visit times and plan for visitor volumes). The rides would be clean, the walks broad and the plants well maintained – perhaps even nourished with treated waste from the surrounding buildings. We would have performers and my phone would make suggestions based on what it knew about me. We would have a relaxing time and leave, back to our efficient house.

Let us now consider what really happened. We took the car there – there was a lot of honking, stopping and a near miss. When I tried to buy a parking ticket – the vendor (he wore no uniform) tried to sell me a ticket with a ridiculous (and unprinted) price. When I told him I would call the police, he rolled his eyes at my naiveté. We settled on a compromise – while repeating this story to a friend, she said she too faced a similar experience the previous week. At the park, many of the slides were broken and the toy train was dirty. The children had a great time, as children often do. When finished, we honked and jolted our way home. Our city, as it stands today, is a very long way from smart.

So how can we make our cities smarter?

We can start by defining what smart is. Then perhaps we can see how other cities in the world have become smarter. Lastly, we can see how to model our journey on theirs, customising it to suit our needs and realities.

Smart cities have several essential pieces. In this and the next article, I am going to focus on smart transport. Smart transport means both designing a city to minimise transport by collocating places of work or study with residences and building or enabling transport options that are low-emission and/or non-polluting. What do I mean by this? Building vertically is an option– large skyscrapers than allow for denser populations and efficient (and comfortable) transportation options like metros or bus services, and having dedicated bike and carpooling lanes. Let us focus on the transport options.

Take cycling first: oft cited as a cure-all, climate friendly city alternative, the question to ask is “Is it practical here?” My quick answer to that would be “No”. Why? First, psychology: do we have the psychological and legal apparatus in place to respect dedicated cycle lanes? Or will the bus driver view the hapless cyclist as prey? I suspect the latter is true. Second, the climate and the pollution: cycling in the temperate zone is exhilarating and thanks to high fuel quality and low particulate emissions, breathing the city air is not as harmful as it is in many Indian cities. The weather in India makes it unlikely for anyone who can afford a motorcycle or a car to take a cycle. This makes it an unrealistic mass solution for a developing country.

Similarly, our current lack of discipline makes carpooling a utopian dream – although there are several intriguing start-ups trying to make carpooling easier from a convenience and cost perspective.

This leaves us with Mass Urban Transit Systems. These come in many flavours – buses, light rail, metros or trains. Many Indian cities have some version of these operating. But not efficiently. Given these present the best opportunity to crack the urban transportation puzzle, we will delve into them in detail next time.

Climaction is a fortnightly column published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The next article in this series will appear on July 24. Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to

Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming.

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Printable version | Oct 31, 2020 8:16:52 AM |

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