Joint Road Forward – a new project

It is well known that in the immediate future, cities will continue to see growth across any of the given parameters: size, demographics, pollution, economy, etc. With this future scenario and with the advent of more data collection, we wanted to look at tools and methods that would be more inclusive of people during the urban planning stage.

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It is in this context that we recently started a new project to look at the issue of mobility in cities. The project is a collaboration with International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore , TU Delft, The Netherlands and KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, focused on mobility in Indian and European cities. For this study we have selected Bangalore and the Randstad region in The Netherlands.

In this project we wanted to take a broader view of mobility and study how it is connected with the overall city in terms of livelihoods, commerce, livability and well-being. We plan to review the capability of current planning methods to incorporate the broader definition of mobility, and, to design new tools and methodologies to improve upon them.  

We are in the initial stages of our work which began a few months ago with a discussion on transport planning. We started studying the data from transport surveys. Transport is a key activity for livelihood (irrespective of location) in a city and often is an inevitable part of our expenditure when our work and home are located further away. This allows us to look at current approaches to transport planning.

Here I have to mention the that we stand on the shoulder of giants, i.e., transport planning already has a number of approaches to model travel in a city. One can look at speed (read: travel time), cost, comfort (or quality of service), etc. while designing transport infrastructure for a city. We are currently in the process of reviewing current planning methodologies.

We find that transport surveys indicated that there are groups of people who get excluded during transportation planning. Studying all the commuters allows us to create an inclusive map of travel demand across Bangalore. We will soon publish some of our methods and initial data. We have published an article on an approach to modelling people and their transport needs at APCOSEC’16 scheduled to be held in Bangalore in November 2016. A pre-publication copy and our presentation which are being prepared will be available on our website soon.

A few comments on ‘Our Metropolis’

Traffic woes in Bangalore are now taken to be “a given”. With the urban agglomeration crossing a population of 1 crore, and the vehicular population crossing 50 lakhs, 70% of which are two-wheelers, it has been long argued that what Bangalore needs is a mass-transit solution. The Namma Metro project has thus been heralded as a panacea for the traffic woes of Bangalore.

While the political and popular media rhetoric around the Metro has been that of its delays and/or its usefulness, what has not been as prevalent in the media are perspectives from people who have opposed the project for various reasons, be it the lack of transparency, the effect of political clout, not identifying other possible options, etc.

Gautam Sonti and Usha Rao’s movie Our Metropolis is one such attempt to show the story of the Metro (along with stories of the road widening efforts, and development of flyovers/signal free corridors in Bangalore) from these perspectives. We attended the screening of the movie at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) on 24 August, which was attended by the creators of the movie as well as a few of the people featured in the movie. The movie itself is not from an activist’s perspective. As Gautam and Usha said at the discussion after the screening, they are movie makers and observers, documenting what is close to their hearts – the dramatically changing landscape of Bangalore. And they question whether these changes are always for the better.

The movie follows the story of the Metro from 2008 to 2013, to show the side of things where people lost their homes, a large number of trees were felled, and political and executive clout suppressed voices which spoke against the project. From a transportation policy perspective, the movie documents some of the effects a top-down, non-transparent, ostensibly non-inclusive, and uncoordinated policy making has on people who live in the city, through the lenses of a few exemplars. The discussions following the movie primarily focussed on the shortcomings of the Metro and road widening projects in Bangalore, with two of the people featured in the movie arguing for other mass transit options.

As one of the people featured in the movie says, “Somehow the problem has become that of moving traffic, not people!”. Transportation infrastructure and policies have to reflect a broad-based, long-term goal of moving from a personal transport based travel to transit-based multi-modal ways of mobility. This, however, is easier said than done. To achieve this lofty goal, some of the things required are systemic changes in how policies are made, how contracting is carried out, how the infrastructure is governed, and what role each of the stakeholders at the city and State levels have.

So if one were to ask if long-term mass-transit options, which sometimes require a heavy upfront capital cost, are needed in Bangalore, the answer is probably a yes. The costs and benefits of such projects are always hard to calculate, but what is imperative to see instead is who are bearing these costs and who are reaping the benefits?

Finally, what is also required is a space for dialogue between the conflicting groups of people. With projects such as the Metro, there is inevitably going to be conflicts. But with a lack of dialogue, what results are echo chambers operating in silos, with one voice overpowering the others.