For a highly populated developing country with little space, India’s single-minded pursuit of the automobile has set back its urban mobility & the quality of its cities. To make our cities “world-class” livable & locally responsive, cars need to be discouraged. In addition, there are massive efficiencies to be harvested from a lack of implementation.

The Elephant on the Road

As a country, we have yet not been able to move our massive population; it is becoming increasingly difficult to get around in a typical Indian city, which is a pity for one of the oldest civilizations. In the capital city of Delhi, cars move a mere 6% of the population, but occupy a massively disproportionate 75–85% of the street width. For a highly-populated developing country with little space, India’s single-minded pursuit of the automobile has compromised its urban mobility and the quality of its cities. Flyovers/ overpasses wipe-out historic street life, a sea of parked cars separates buildings from urban activity, and automobiles speed through walled-off streets, leaving little space for pedestrians. The ground floor of residential buildings is surrendered to automobile parking, forcing people to move up into modern citadels, disconnecting society from nature and street life. As a result, communities are increasingly sub-divided into social-islands, compromising the very idea of cities as places of connected and beneficial co-existence.

But these are also opportune times; today there are considerable headwinds of sustainable economic growth, innovative precedents, and strong sociopolitical will to recalibrate the direction of city development. This is the time for governments, citizens, developers, engineers and designers to hack urban mobility, re-stitch cities, and ensure quality urban life.

Being mobile helps a citizen reach the physical network of people and places. Our mobility needs now include access to education, jobs, essential commodities, and friends/family. Mobility increases company and city competitiveness by casting a wider net for resources. It allows people to be able to choose where they want to live, work and play. Mobility creates synergy- it helps cities be larger than the sum of its constituents.

“Hacks” is a term coined for strategic effort for maximal return. Hacks work inside out on our cities to make them smarter, rather than invest in and gamble on new cities. Hacks leverage history, investments and existing communities to create valuable, bottom-up networks. For example, for a city to hack tourism, a minimal connected network of tourism destinations, transportation access, hotels, restaurants, and key stakeholders is required.

Today, Delhi is the world’s 12th densest city and the 2nd most populated in the world. No developed cities exist close to this density and size. We barely have enough living space for our people, let alone space-hogging modes of transportation. On top of that, India has low car ownership compared to many other countries with 19.5 cars for every 1000 people- as compared to 77 cars in hilly Hong Kong, 83 in China, 206 in Thailand, 459 in Japan and 797 in the US. If the current car population was to merely double or triple- something very possible if we go along business as usual- it would bring traffic to a grinding halt and cause even more road rage.

In Delhi, streets make up a low 21% of the land area, and are therefore set up for congestion. This is typical of other Indian cities and even new private developments, where developable land is maximised. To make matters worse, neighbourhoods continue to shut their streets and themselves from the city, citing security concerns and turning themselves into gated communities and mega blocks- both unproductive participants in the healthy functioning of a city.

If street capacity was to be increased for cars, even if land were available, it would primarily induce demand for more cars. “Increasing roads and flyovers to ease traffic congestion is like buying bigger pants to control obesity” as per Dario Hidalgo, the brain behind the bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Colombia.

India and other developing countries need to work with their unique parameters of population, density, and climate to define their version of mobility, rather than keeping up with the richer Joneses. Private car ownership needs to be immediately discouraged, if we are to get around in and sustain our lovely cities. This can be achieved through making people bear the true cost of owning a car and rewarding them to economise - through initiatives such as temporary and overnight parking charges, congestion pricing, employer incentives for commuting via transit or ride-sharing, and of-course providing more modes of mobility.

Some cities like Lyon, Zurich, Copenhagen, Birmingham and London are already showing signs of outgrowing cars, lured by benefits in efficiency, quality of life and reclaimed space. More efficient modes of transportation, like walking, bicycles, and transit need to be given a good chunk of the space cars today occupy on and off the road. Such street transformations are already in play around the world with streets becoming a part of city-life, becoming a part of the public realm that stitches communities together, rather than exist only for cars and end up as sterile, unsafe and divisive corridors.

Private cars sit idle 90–95% of the time. In addition, the millennial+ generations have a decreasing desire to own, drive, park, and maintain cars- spurring the popularity of radio-taxis. Ride-sharing is a logical advancement of under-leveraged capacity of cars- 70% of cars in India have a single person driving it. Examples of existing services are Ola, Uber and Bla Bla Car in India. Our cities need to designate spaces in the public and private realm for a range of such means of transportation. Accessible pods of shared cars should be part of city layouts and private developments. A portion of parking requirements in buildings can easily be dedicated to such services. Radio taxis, some parked in these dedicated parking spaces, could be made hailable with solutions such as scan-able QR codes to link to waiting cars.

Car companies would have you believe that self-driving cars are the future of mobility, though, as we have established, optimizing car usage can only go so far. At the same time, a significant number of cars will and should be around for some time- given the lack of alternatives, our current dependence on cars, their combination of utility and comfort, decreasing costs/km with technology and sharing, and availability of clean fuel engines.

Delhi’s 2011 transportation share by mode, also called the modal-share or modal-split, states that 48% travel by public transit (including 18% metro and 30% buses), 33% take non-motorized transport (12% cycle and 21% walk), and 19% use private motorized-transport (6% car, 13% 2-wheelers). These numbers expose that with a focus on cars, we have invested in the least efficient means of mobility. A paradigm shift in priorities is required and we do not need to start from scratch.

Bus Tedi Mat Khadi Karo [Don’t park the bus crooked at the bus-stop]

Gliding under and over a sea of gridlocked honking traffic, the Delhi Metro defines a new paradigm in efficiency (99% punctuality), pride (Shabana Azmi loves it), and air-conditioned public space to beat the 45C heat. Supporting the 2nd largest city population in the world after Tokyo, the Delhi Metro carries 2.7 million people everyday. The Metro cuts through back-breaking traffic, dented cars and road rage. It gets people to work, students to their schools, travelers to their buses, trains & planes, and foodies to old Delhi- all while earning carbon credits and preventing greenhouse emissions. The new Pink and Magenta lines, opening within the year 2017, will be powered by clean solar energy and carry another 2 million riders every day.

Buses, the other major component of public transit, carry 30% of Delhi’s traffic or 4.5 million people/day- which is almost double the traffic of the Metro. Bus rapid transit systems at Rs.100–150 million/km, are also less than a tenth of the cost of a metro system, which few developing cities of the world can afford. For cities large to small, buses and high occupancy vehicles are the critical spine of mobility- allowing geographical reach, capacity, cost effectiveness, comfort, space-efficiency and relative ease of implementation. The fact that the Delhi bus system with its under-provided 5500 buses carries the largest percentage of people, only reaffirms the potential it holds. Currently, the bus shortage creates a gap and encourages other lower-capacity and clutter-causing modes of transport, e.g. auto-rickshaws for schoolchildren and hop-on hop-off “tempos” along major streets and metro stations. Despite Delhi’s half-hearted attempt at and bad memories of the 2008 Delhi Bus Rapid Transport initiative, more buses, with better modal integration, with more comfortable and luxurious options, and employer-driven incentives to encourage usage, are the primary solution to urban mobility.

Walking and bicycling, also called non-motorized transport or NMT, is the most used means across Indian cities despite poor infrastructure. The average Indian city is in a position to make a majority of its trips via NMT, given the option and the infrastructure. Bike-sharing in China is already giving ride-sharing taxis a run for its money. NMT requires minimal investment, is pollution-free, and keeps people fit. Maximizing walking and bicycling should be the first step towards mobility for any city.

Yet there exist few bicycle lanes and almost half of the capital’s streets have no sidewalks. Data shows that more than 60% fatalities involve pedestrians and cyclists- amounting to 90,000 out of 1.5 lakh annual deaths on our streets. In effect, the existing 30%-50% population of walkers and cyclists in the country are subsidizing road infrastructure for car-owners. The walkers and cyclists are paying with not only a lack of travel space, congested streets, and increased travel times, but with their wallets, health and safety.

70–80% of 36-year old urban population in India are obese by WHO standards; 74% are prone to cardiovascular diseases; a heart attack claims 80 lives a day in Mumbai and one every 33-seconds nationally. Much of these appalling statistics exist due to a lack of physical activity. Getting around on foot and bicycles can help provide the recommended 30-minutes of moderate daily physical activity to the vast majority of the population. It is not rocket science that city-design and health of its citizens are intertwined. Our cities and buildings need to be “active-design” enabled, for which some cities like New York have proactively implemented design-guidelines.

Continuous walking and strategic cycling space should connect transit stations, residential neighborhoods, and commercial centers. Parking should be provided as a district-resource and not building-resource so as to increase walkability and optimize development. Pedestrian-priority and car-free districts should be created, which are known to increase retail and commercial activity. Workplaces should be spread out through cities, and mixed-use development maximized, so that most daily destinations are within walking and cycling distances. Urban planning should focus on bringing people and places together, integrating transportation with land-poor and development, rather than merely adding urban transport infrastructure to increase the movement of people and goods.

“The strength of a network lies more in its links than its nodes” as per Dr. Sumit Chowdhury of Gaia Smart Cities. In addition to NMT and transit, diverse modes of transportation are required for end-to-end connectivity, catering to different distances and cost brackets. These include taxis, rickshaws, and other forms of high-occupancy shared vehicles. All these modes of transportation should be seamlessly connected as a network between places of live, work and play.

Auto-rickshaws, ideally electric or CNG, possibly larger to accommodate more people, can provide short neighborhood trips and first and last-mile connectivity. These modes can act as alternate feeders to mass transit systems, simultaneously reducing the need to own private vehicles. Auto-rickshaws are cheaper and at lower speeds are safer to run. India will become a 100% e-vehicle nation by 2030, according to Piyush Goyal, Power Minister. E-rickshaws are taking off in popularity and these need supporting infrastructure like charging/ battery-swap locations in places like in metro stations and petrol pumps.

The space outside the Metro stations is a critical urban junction where travelers switch to other modes of transportation. Currently these station areas resemble angry bee-hives with a diversity of vehicles wrestling their way in and out. It is especially important to get the design right in situations where metro stations are built on and beside existing major streets- to minimize impact on street-capacity and functioning. Direct pedestrian crossovers/skywalks should be constructed to all major developments and destinations within the catchment area. Travelers can then walk to/from the metro station directly rather than using motorized transport to cover short distances and cluttering up the station area.

Build it and they will come. But as we can see on the streets, if proper implementation, education and management are overlooked, the most brilliant or basic solutions can act as white elephants, taking up valuable street space. The few sidewalks and bike lanes in Indian cities are usually littered with open manhole covers, electricity boxes, sign boards, street lights, unauthorized parking, commercial encroachment, people sleeping, stray animals, trees, and/or bus stops- discouraging most users, and forcing the few enthusiasts to walk on the street. A bus makes a “teda” stop, diagonal across 2 travel lanes, in addition to vendors buying their way into the street right of way, thereby reducing street capacity by half. Likewise, a lack of policing of driving basics, like clogged street intersections (jumping traffic-lights), driving on the opposite side of the street, using entire street widths as right-turn lanes, a lack of lane discipline, and double-parking or parking in travel lanes, can dramatically decrease the efficiency of our streets. A considerable amount of mobility is stuck in deficient implementation. This low-hanging fruit needs to be hacked and freed first, before we spend valuable resources on additional capacity.

— Sameer Chadha is an Urban Designer and Architect. He has consulted on city development projects in India, North America, Korea, and the UAE.