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   Issue 3

15-31 December 2001  

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In conversation
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In an exhaustive discussion, Professor Dinesh Mohan, who heads the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme at IIT-Delhi, voices his concerns about urban transport in India. He opens out his blueprint that might make travelling within the city safer than what it is today.


You have spent many years working on what would be the best transport options for people. Is there a blueprint that you have, and can you tell us more about it?

Yes, there is certainly a blueprint. The first thing to remember is that urban transport is reasonably complex. I say this because most of us think urban transport is all about car trips, going to work and back. But as we all have seen, and this is internationally, it is not all about just mobility, it is also about access. How many people of different social groups are able to get to work comfortably? And in India we need to answer these questions keeping in mind the context of low per capita incomes. What that means is there are social issues involved in making transport accessible, and that we all need to rethink on this `just car trips' kind of mindset.

In the US, the shopping mall is a popular concept. The mall gives you everything you need in one trip, and it saves the number of trips you need to make for your shopping. While this would be ideal, the complexity comes when we try to do this in India, where spending capacity of people is much less. Adding to this complexity is the fact that even people in Indian cities who own cars are spending a lot of their money on maintaining and running the car; also, the car in the family does not mean transport for all in the family, it is transport -- most often -- for the working male in the family. So the women, the children, and the elders in the family are still relying heavily on public transport for moving around the city.

For all these reasons, it is important that the main issue of a blueprint addresses the needs of people who do not own cars, how do they get about? Well, I would say walking, bicycling, or public transport. All systems that evolve to make city transport better should be around these core systems.

More importantly, the system should address three very important issues: (1) safety from accidents, (2) safety from road crime, and (3) facilities to make it easier for people to exercise these three choices of walking, cycling or using public transport.


Easier said than done. How do you see this happening without a total overhaul of the system we have today?

Not as difficult as you would think. For one, we are fortunate in India that we have a really mixed land-use system, people both rich and poor all live close to each other and that is a good thing because the poor can get to work without much of a problem. I mean this in the context of plans that desire moving slums to the periphery of a city. I'd say that isn't such a great idea because you would move the poor away from their places of work and not provide them an efficient method of reaching work, nor the financial ability to do so. It is amazing how some violations of original city plans have actually been beneficial to us. I think it is time we looked at these violations carefully and if they are helping us, formalize them.

Also, do not shun para-transport. In smaller cities for instance, the Vikram (tempo) manages to take a lot of people around. What is wrong with that? Some cities are trying to get rid of such small means of transport because they are polluters. My idea is we should think of improving the technology, but keep them going. Its better than introducing expensive new private vans that many will not be able to afford.

Again, I believe the change is possible because people are already walking and cycling to work. Problem is we are always thinking of that miniscule population that moves in air-conditioned cars to work. As of today, millions of Indians are cycling 10 kilometres, if not more, to work, or walking 5-6 kilometres to work. So, there is a lot that is already happening. Why, even with a car you do walk. So the blue print is really already in action, we need to make things better for the people who are choosing these options, better and safer.


What is the way to do that?

For one, we need a cafeteria approach to the problem, there are all kinds of people using all kinds of transport methods. But the crux lies elsewhere, unless we give people the safety from accidents and crime, we will not get anywhere. Safety will have to become the bedrock of our transportation policy. In fact, so many people ask me, you were an engineer, what is this safety stuff you are now doing? Well, it lies at the centre of good transportation. If a vehicle pollutes, the person will still move, but if a street is unsafe, he or she will not venture out alone on that street, come what may.

Environmental issues are long-term health issues, but safety is an immediate choice that everybody exercises. So, in an unsafe city children will not go to school on bikes, women will not walk that kilometer or so to the shopping centre. Today, there are countless parents ferrying their children to and fro in cars from music and dance classes or school. That is because they believe their children are not safe on the road. Old people are not safe either, in my own family two elders have broken their bones in recent times just walking on defective pavements. For younger people this problem of safety is not just a transport issue, but a social one -- it cuts their social universe in half. So, just make things safer and change will follow.


The safety issue is obviously more vital to a cyclist or a pedestrian than others?

It is important for everybody, but yes, half the road accidents in Delhi involve pedestrians, and 70 % of those in Mumbai. Cyclists are equally susceptible. Death rates for occupants of a car are lower. We need to change the design of our roads. We do not even follow what is basic safe road design in Europe for instance. This is when there are more cyclists and pedestrians here (even by proportion of the population) than there are in Europe. In Delhi, 40% of the people who go to work use cycles. Friendly road design may happen only if we work in a mission mode all across the country.


That sounds like total overhaul. Is there something we can do immediately?

Ofcourse. Stop free left turns at traffic intersections. This will immediately ensure that a pedestrian can cross the road safely. Residential areas have often seen people building speed-breakers on their own. That helps. In Europe there are traffic calming designs, which are road designs that bring increased safety, not through policing. More roundabouts, in fact micro roundabouts at intersections can also greatly help. Narrower roads and wider pedestrian walks. Speed limits of 30-50 km per hour. Raising the pedestrian crossing by 10 centimetres it becomes something of a speed breaker. Then, quite simply, just look after pavements and make sure they are not full of potholes and broken stones. Reduce the height of the pavement, such high pavements are not required and cause accidents when cars ram into them. Paint all cycles yellow. Get two-wheelers to keep headlights on in daytime too, this has been seen to reduce accidents in Malaysia.


What about safety from road crime?

In India, violent road crimes are fewer because of the many hawkers and vendors who dot the streets. Let them be, I would say. In fact our group has worked extensively on how best a street could be designed to keep the hawker and yet not have him in the way. The corner `paan-wala', the `tandoor-wala', the flower seller, these are all people who make it safer for people to walk about. If the streets are safe, people will walk.


Did you always see yourself this way, working for safer roads?

My original work was on the biomechanics of impact. I worked on car design, good helmet design, dashboard design, seat belts and what have you. Slowly, one realised that these were desirable elements of safety on the road, but the real issue lay elsewhere. Now we have a good interdisciplinary group working on basic issues, and it hasn't happened overnight, it's taken a decade to realise the real core issues.


Do you sometimes feel frustrated that some of your ideas have not been picked up, for instance separate lanes for cyclists?

Personally yes, it is frustrating. But theoretically, no. Changing road design is a Herculean task. Working on seemingly small projects is not so glamorous. The Delhi Metro is -- glamorous and high profile and technologically expensive; so what if it will serve only 2-3% of Delhi's population. But everybody is excited about it.

I have seen more political support than professional. It is the professionals who find change hard to take. We will see change if people feel they believe in something, if they feel a right of ownership, if there is consensus building. In the case of public transport, the problem is the bodies that run it are not professional enough. London Transport is full of scientists, social science experts, doctoral degree holders. You need a sophisticated group to run a city's public transport system. We need a local tax system in place that can garner funds for a high capacity bus system in a city like Delhi. We need a public debate on this maybe.


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