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Infrastructure for Development


Urban transport: moving

from the 19th century to
the 21st century concerns
Dinesh Mohan
Co-ordinator of the Transportation Research
and Injury Prevention Programme,
Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi

ost countries in the Commonwealth are involved in planning urban transportation futures to
M combat climate change. The proposed technical fixes will have little impact unless urban
transportation planners resist the move toward infrastructure development that fixes our future to
high energy use and CO2 emissions. Pressure for changing policies will be successful if the majority
of city residents can be convinced that their current and future mobility/accessibility needs can be
met at lower risk levels, at lower costs and with wider availability of choices by providing streets that
are safer from crime and road traffic injuries.

Introduction problems that all of us have to deal with in the near

For many millennia human beings had to limit their future. Almost all cities in the world face severe
greed because excess consumption demanded more congestion on arterial roads. During peak times, car
manual labour. This limited their travel, the size of house speeds average 10-15 km/h in cities like London, Dhaka,
they could build, clothes they could own and food they Accra, Delhi, Nairobi, Kuala Lumpur, Lagos and Karachi.
could eat. The industrial revolution changed all that. Evidence from cities like London, Montreal and
Our machines provide us with ready-to-cook food, Melbourne indicates that public transport use is greater
manufactured houses, clothes and effortless travel. This than 60 per cent only in the small inner core where
has changed the concept of needs and greed. The parking is very limited and roads are perpetually full. In
worldview has changed into a belief that there are endless the rest of the city, car use is generally more than 60 per
resources, and that science and technology have solutions cent as roads are less crowded and there is easy availability
to every emerging problem without constraint. Most of of parking. Detailed studies from these cities point out
the responses to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate that car owners generally shift to public transport only
Change (IPCC) warnings have this belief as their base. when no parking is available at the destination and
Unending problems of traffic congestion, CO2 average car speeds are less than 15 km/h. Empirical
production, road traffic injuries (RTI) and pollution in evidence suggests that car use (not ownership) is low
every single city of the commonwealth countries has only when walking and bicycling trips form a significant
forced us to re-evaluate both our theories and practices. proportion of all trips in cities like Amsterdam.
Professor Hermann Knoflacher of the Technical University Urban transportation policy reports prepared by
in Vienna warns us that: “Car traffic is cooling social consultants in most countries assume that car use can be
relationships by heating up the atmosphere!”Voices like his reduced just by providing more public transport
are not alone or new. Professor Banister of Oxford facilities and assert that, if their prescriptions are
University holds that: “The belief that technology provides followed, 70-80 per cent of the trips would then be
the solution is misplaced, as technological innovation can taken by public transit. The fact is that no city in the
only get us part of the way to sustainable transport. world has accomplished this feat. In the richest cities of
Significant reductions of CO2 emissions in transport can India, Mumbai and Delhi, recent estimates suggest that
only be achieved through behavioural change. There is car trips constitute less than 10-15 per cent of all trips.
little sign that people are aware of the scale of the In all other Indian cities, this proportion would be
challenge, or prepared to make the necessary changes.” lower. Additionally, the share of public transport in these
two cities is certainly higher than most of the cities in
Issues Europe or North America. Therefore, it is difficult to
Their concern arises from the fact that even cities in imagine how car and motorcycle use can be contained
high-income countries have not been able to solve the as we get richer if the international experience is

Cyprus, 30 September - 2 October 2009 1

Commonwealth Finance Ministers Reference Report, Commonwealth Secretariat,London, 2009, 120-122.
Infrastructure for Development


anything to go by. Obviously, business as usual and as US$4,000-5,000, and used ones for quarter the price.
copycat emulation of rich cities is not going to help. This has made it possible for the middle class first-time
car owner to travel in cars with comfort levels Europeans
Old versus new cities had not experienced till the late 20th century. Air-
conditioned, comfortable, safe and quiet travel in cars
Most cities in the 21st century are growing under very
with music in hot and tropical climates cannot be
different conditions from those that matured before the
matched by public transport. Owners of such vehicles
20th century. Most large cities in high-income countries
would brave congestion rather than brave the climate on
(HIC) grew to their present size between 1850 and
access trips and the jostling in public transport.
1950. Technological developments were critical in
Availability of motorcycles has further reduced the
changing the shape and form of the city. Cities that have
middle class demand for public transport. In addition, it
grown after 1950 do not have the characteristics of
has pegged the fare levels that can be charged by public
strong central business districts (CBD) in any part of the
transport operators. It appears that public transport cannot
world. Car ownership started increasing in the 1920s but
attract these road users unless the fare is less than the
most families did not own a car until the middle of the
marginal cost of using a motorcycle. At current prices, this
20th century. By then, the essential land use and
amounts to less than US$ 0.02 per km. The only option
transportation patterns of large cities in HICs were well
available is to design very cost efficient public transport
set with large CBDs. This encouraged building of high
systems that come close to matching this price.
capacity grade separated metro systems and, in turn, the
Cities in low and middle-income countries that have
transport system encouraged densification of CBDs as
grown after the 1950s seem to be different in character
large numbers of people could be transported to the
with multiple business districts, mixed land use (largely
centre of the city. The non-availability of the car to the
by default, illegally), relatively short trip distances and a
middle class decided the widespread use of public
large share of walking and public transport, even if the
transport and city form.
latter is not provided by the city authorities. When
public transport is not provided officially, informal
systems using mini-buses, three-wheelers and vans
When public transport is not provided operate semi-legally or illegally and provide a majority
officially, informal systems using mini-buses, of the motorised trips. No low or middle-income city is
three-wheelers and vans operate semi-legally without such systems. It is also clear that no city in a low
or middle-income country has been able build a metro
or illegally and provide a majority of the system that attracts a majority of public transport
motorised trips. No low or middle-income passengers. This is partly because no city that has grown
city is without such systems. after 1950 has a large and dense central business district.

New megacities and climate change

Cities in most commonwealth countries have expanded
after 1960 and most have multiple business districts. In the Current situation
past two decades, motorcycle ownership has increased Almost every country and major city government is
substantially in many cities, and as a result a significant involved in planning for the future in view of the
proportion of families own a car or a motorcycle at a very pressure put on us by fears of climate change. What has to
low per capita income level of about US$1,400 per year. be ensured is that urban transportation planners do not
Such high levels of private vehicle ownership did not move toward infrastructure development that will fix
happen until incomes were much higher in HIC cities. our future to high energy use and CO2 emissions. This
Therefore, the high ownership of motorcycles, non- change will not be easy, as traditional mobility planning
availability of funds to build expensive grade separated embedded in textbooks promotes capital intensive
metro systems and official plans encouraging multi nodal projects that are also attractive as a symbol of progress
business activity in a city has resulted in the absence of and profitable for large consultancy/contracting/
dense high population CBDs and city forms which manufacturing corporations worldwide. Pressure for
encourage “sprawl” in the form of relatively dense cities changing policies will be successful only if the majority
within cities. of city residents can be convinced that their current and
future mobility/accessibility needs can be met at lower
Changes in technology and declining demand for
risk levels, at lower costs and wider availability of choices.
public transportation
Most middle class families did not own air-conditioned Way forward
cars with stereo systems in HICs before 1970. The cars Issues outlined will have a greater degree of successful
were noisy and occupants were exposed to traffic fumes implementation in the future if the following factors are
as windows had to be kept open. Under such conditions, addressed in theory and design: traffic safety; design for
the train was much more comfortable. On the other informal activity on roads; reduction of crime by
hand, brand new, quiet, stereo equipped, air-conditioned design; and equal spread of low income people in all
cars are being sold in countries like India at prices as low parts of the city.

2 The Commonwealth Finance Ministers Meeting 2009

Infrastructure for Development


Road safety Great American Cities, author Jane Jacobs suggested that
One of the greatest factors influencing and forcing crime could be reduced by having “eyes on the street.”
people to adopt personal modes of mechanised transport By “eyes on the street” Jacobs meant shops on ground
is their perceived risk of road traffic injuries in travel. floors abutting the side walk, abundance of kiosks and
The high risk of injuries as pedestrians and bicyclists also cafes, and a vibrant walking atmosphere.
deters people from using public transport if their income However, street design in many cities does not allow
is high enough to own personal vehicles. Therefore, for shops and businesses abutting the sidewalk. On the
ensuring safety of non-motorised modes of travel other hand, we have “eyes” on all those streets where
becomes a pre-condition for encouraging public hawkers and vendors are able to exist in our cities. These
transport use, and ultimately cleaner air in our cities. vendors also serve a huge social need and provide
employment and nutrition to city dwellers. Without
them, our streets would not provide the relative crime-
Pressure for changing policies will free atmosphere we have. These vendors then become
be successful only if the majority of city essential as a part of our transportation planning process.
residents can be convinced that their current It is not very difficult to plan for them as every road
needs a treeline which occupies a corridor of 1-1.5
and future mobility/accessibility needs can metres of space on the pedestrian path. Vendors only
be met at lower risk levels, at lower costs need 1-1.5 metres and they can occupy spaces between
and wider availability of choices. trees without bothering pedestrian traffic. It is important
to develop street design standards incorporating street
vendors as an essential component.
City structure, modal share split, exposure of motorists Reviews of the environmental criminology literature
and pedestrians may have a greater role in determining indicates that more permeable residential street networks
fatality rates than vehicle and road design alone. With the are associated with higher levels of crime than less
same proportion of land devoted to road space, we can permeable configurations such as cul-de-sacs. Mixed-use
have large blocks with fewer arterial roads or smaller developments with the rich and poor living in close
blocks with a larger number of arterial streets. In the proximity have also been associated with reduced levels
former type of cities, the avenues would be wider than of crime. Many new urbanists, street furniture and public
the latter type of cities. If the arterial streets are wide, it facility planners are also working on designs that
encourages high speeds during off-peak hours resulting automatically reduce incidents of crime and perceptions
in high pedestrian and bicycle crash rates. High of risk by all road users. Much more attention needs to
pedestrian and bicycle fatality rates discourage the use of be given to this aspect of urban space design and
non-motorised modes and public transport. planning as it will ultimately lead to greater adoption of
When a majority of commuters are dependent on sustainable forms of transport.
motor vehicle use for their essential needs, the system
creates a political demand for greater provision of motor
vehicle facilities and road space. This in turn can make it
difficult for the political system to be harsh on drivers in Dinesh Mohan is Co-ordinator of the Transportation Research
terms of speed enforcement and controlling drinking and Injury Prevention Programme at the Indian Institute of
and driving. In this situation, not only do people tend to Technology, Delhi. A biomedical engineer, he has worked on
use motor vehicles for short trips, but they also demand epidemiology and biomechanics of road traffic crashes for the last
facilities that reduce trip time for long trips. It seems that thirty years. Concerned with mobility and safety of people
if we have to promote walking, bicycling and public outside the car, he is trying to integrate these issues within a
transport use we will have to make traffic safety a broader framework of sustainable transport policies and people’s
priority along with city structure designs that right to access and safety as a fundamental human right.
incorporate the following: (a) street design ensuring
safety of non-motorised modes; (b) vehicle speed The shared vision of researchers at the Transportation
control by street design and ultimately ITS control on Research and Injury Prevention Programme is to produce
vehicles; (c) denser layout of through traffic streets with knowledge that reduces the adverse health effects of transport by
narrower cross sections; and (d) smaller size of residential integrating mobility, safety and environmental concerns specific to
neighbourhoods. India, in particular, and other less motorised countries in general.
Crime and transport
Dinesh Mohan, PhD,Volvo Chair Professor and Coordinator
Crime and fear of crime affects travel choice
Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme
significantly and acts as a major barrier to the use of
WHO Collaborating Centre, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi
public transport, cycling and walking. It is also clear that
Room 808, 7th Floor Main Building, Hauz Khas
just depending on more aggressive street policing is not
New Delhi 110016, India
very effective in reducing crime in neighborhoods or in
reducing the perception of risk especially among Tel: +91 11 26 59 11 47 Fax: +91 11 26 85 87 03
women. 47 years ago, in her book The Death and Life of Email: Website:

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