The chimera of public transport
The chimera of public transport
by Ravikiran Rao - January 17, 2014 8:11 pm
Advocates for public transport yearn for an idealised past when cities were
compact and liveable.
I had the good fortune of spending Christmas and New Year's visiting Udupi
and Dakshina Kannada. Apart from the rather dubious pleasure of meeting
relatives and the more certain joys of consuming excellent traditional food,
the region has its attractions for those with an interest in public policy.
It offers a vision of an urbanised, middle-class India that does not involve
cramming all its citizens into a few metropolises.
In the Western world, development and urbanisation has followed a certain
pattern. Great cities arose in response to the imperative that economic
activity required people to be located close to each other. As people
flocked to the cities, their infrastructure was unable to take the strain,
and for a period, the conditions in those cities were miserable, and people
yearned for an idealised version of the rural world that they had left
behind. It took decades for the cities to build the roads and metros that
would make life in them livable. At the same time, the introduction of cars
and other motorised transport reduced the need for all economic activity to
be concentrated at city centres. Families could now live in the suburbs and
commute to work. An industrialist could build a factory in a town 50km away
from the city, a university town could spring up 100km away in another
direction, and so on.
Such a network of cities and towns cannot be supported through public
transport. It requires a road network and mass automobile ownership.
Illustrating how fickle nostalgia is, advocates for public transport now
yearn for an idealised past when cities were compact and livable, and when
one could walk to buy groceries.
Of course, beyond nostalgia, distaste for suburban sprawl is an
understandable desire to avoid the wasteful mistakes of the western world.
Cars use fuel, and emit carbon dioxide. If India can build plan dense cities
that are supported by adequate public transport, the argument goes, it can
avoid the problem of suburban sprawl that bedevils the United States. It is
better to do it now than to react after the fact, when cities are creaking
from the strain of too many people.
The problem, however, is that in practice, this argument gains political
traction only in places like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore- cities that have
already grown beyond their capacity and are in urgent need of public
transport. For the argument about proactivity to have force, we must see how
it applies to India's small towns. We need to consider Mangalore, Udupi and
Dakshina Kannada in general.
That is where we run into difficulties, because it is as difficult to
conceive of a region as large as Dakshina Kannada being served by adequate
public transport, as it is to conceive of the suburban USA being served. To
be sure, the region actually has excellent bus service, run by private
operators. The buses are crowded during peak times and the wait times during
non-peak hours are quite high. This may not be an unacceptable burden right
now, but is it enough to stop people from buying cars and travelling by them
as soon as they can afford it?
The solution, public transport advocates would retort, is to increase
density. However, but this is not a realistic solution. Would people be
comfortable with confining economic activity in Mangalore and preventing it
in Udupi? Or if the town of Mulki wants to offer land to a software company
to set up its campus, would that be banned on the grounds that it would
reduce density? Would they be comfortable with coercing the entire
population of the two districts to move into one or two cities?
Currently, land use restrictions and bad governance is doing to Indian
cities what the cost of transport did to Western cities in the 19th century.
Development is being confined to a few cities because of restrictions on
sale of agricultural land, and because governance and infrastructure are bad
outside the urban centres. If India starts fixing these issues, sprawl will
be inevitable. Towns will develop and they will expect to be connected with
one another through roads. A family will want to stay in one town, with the
husband working in one town, wife in another, and send their kids to school
in yet another.
It is clear that advocates of public transport haven't though their
solutions through. The scope of their visions of urban planning is confined
to individual cities, not to networks of towns. They vastly underestimate
the extent of central planning and coercion that their vision would require.
India's urban planning needs to take into account the reality of the
networks of towns.
Ravikiran S Rao blogs at The Examined Life .