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The chimera of public transport

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    http://pragati.nationalinterest.in/2014/01/the-chimera-of-public-transport/ Savyasachi The chimera of public transport by Ravikiran Rao - January 17, 2014 8:11
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 23, 2014
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      http://pragati.nationalinterest.in/2014/01/the-chimera-of-public-transport/

      Savyasachi

      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.

      Photo: chmoss

      Ravikiran S Rao blogs at The Examined Life .
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