Walk Tall!

How non-motorised transport can be the panacea for urban pollution woes

Source: http://blogs.economictimes.indiatimes.com/urbanissues/how-non-motorised-transport-can-be-the-panacea-for-urban-pollution-woes/

Union Budget 2015 included a few initiatives with regard to clean energy. Among others, finance minister Arun Jaitley also proposed “to increase the clean energy cess from 100 to 200 per metric tonne of coal to finance clean environment initiatives”. This is welcome. However, there are much easier and cheaper ways of supporting clean energy initiatives in Indian cities, where the bulk of vehicular emissions take place.

One less obvious handle to managing urban transport problems is land use. A10-metre widening of a one-km-long road will involve several crores of expenditure. Hence, restricting car-use — and not its ownership per se — could be a solution.

Cities such as Bengaluru have been experimenting with ‘car-free’ Sundays, while many suburbs have been doing this by turn. This is a good start. However, if we were to implement a car-free weekday, what would happen? Given the current patterns of commute, it would make the city experience a ‘bandh’ day.

To be financially viable, public transport companies can operate only along those routes that are dense. Public transport can’t solve the ‘last-mile connectivity’ problem that many commuters face. Hence, the solution lies in encouraging pedestrianisation and the use of bicycles in cities. This seemingly simple but actually complex solution is broadly referred to as non-motorised transport (NMT), which includes hand-drawn carts and animal-led carts as well.

For accomplishing the use of NMT in our cities, local governments need not do much in the form of resources. What is required is planning for pedestrian walkways and/or bicycle paths. For this, footpaths need to be rid of garbage, two-wheelers and potholes. Also, skywalks and pedestrian subways need to be well-lit and safe.

The Asian Development Bank’s website on urban development carries a case study about Pune, which experimented with ‘vehicle-free’ timings (4:00-6:00 p.m.) on weekends, converting the city’s Mahatma Gandhi Road into a vehicle-free plaza in 2006. The once-congested road, remade and provided with additional streetlights and footpaths, became a bustling plaza with nearly 20,000 pedestrians each weekend, with a highly conducive environment for families and children to stroll and play.

Businesses on the street previously against the idea — because they expected their earnings to drop — eventually began to attract more customers than they had prior to the road closure. The case study also reports that sound and air pollution decreased by 40-50% on Pune’s MG Road.

To extend the Pune success farther, a more basic planning idea frequently suggested is the use of mixed-use zoning, such that residence, work and services are in proximity to each other, to make them accessible by walking.

Further, it is possible to have a bicycle master plan for every Indian city, where the paths are clearly indicated, the points at which they intersect with motorised traffic recommended as in developed countries.

A simple Google search shows that IIT-Delhi’s Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme had developed a bicycle master plan for Delhi as early as the 1990s. The project came up with detailed designs for roads to improve the flow of all modes of transport. However, its implementation is still being discussed.

Planning for NMT isn’t expensive, but requires care and effort in getting together all stakeholders: bicycle manufacturers, automobile owners and dealers, policymakers (such as the regional transport offices) and commuters. An allocation of Rs 4,770 crore, for instance, was made in Karnataka’s state budget for 2015-16 for Bengaluru’s overall development. This included various projects by the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, and the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation.

There is a ministry of urban development toolkit launched in 2011 for public cycle-sharing systems. It defined cycle-sharing as “a flexible form of personal public transport, whereby cycles are stored in a closely-spaced network of stations. With a smart card or other form of identification, a user can check out a cycle from a station and return it to any other station.” However, only when bicycle usage is incentivised with planning can such eco-friendly practices take off.

We have to improve bicycle education in this country, and make our roads better for pedestrians, the poor, the disabled and senior citizens. Bicycle manufacturers should take this up seriously to enable cities to be more inclusive and environment-friendly.

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