Plan roads to increase mobility, not vehicles

November 22, 2013

Amit Bhattacharya


Transport is at the heart of urban development and economic activity. However, the current urban transport paradigms, which favor auto-mobility and generate multiple social, economic and environmental impacts, are not sustainable. It is well-documented that in India, close to 1.5 lakh people die every year due to road traffic accidents and a majority of them are pedestrians and cyclists. About 6 lakh premature deaths take place in the country annually on account of air pollution and about 4 lakh people die every year due to physical inactivity, which is directly linked to a sedentary lifestyle. Apart from these, there are issues around climate change, energy security (dependency of importing fossil fuel) and others, all of which are directly linked to the way we plan our cities for habitation. That in turn is directly linked to the transportation system of our cities and towns.One on the easiest but counterproductive ways of solving the transportation problem is by expanding road capacity, i.e. road widening, constructing flyovers, etc. However, globally, it has been recognized that this is not the solution to traffic congestion because it encourages motorized movement in the city, leading to more congestion. In California, between 1973 and 1990, every 10% increase in road lane-kilometres led to a 9% increase in vehicle kilometres travel (VKT) within a four-year period. Usually, it’s a matter of time before newly improved roads become congested again, a phenomenon known as “the rebound effect”.

Numerous empirical studies and analyses of real world case studies have shown that new road capacity usually induces traffic in direct proportion to the amount of new road space. In fact, different studies have shown that a large portion (50-100%) of the new roadway capacity is absorbed by induced traffic after three years of operation. Therefore, solving transportation problem by expanding road capacity is like solving an obesity problem by stitching bigger clothes or solving a heart problem with repeated bypass surgeries.

The answer to these problems lies in our own policies. India’s National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) recognizes this and recommends that the focus be on moving people, not vehicles. It calls for promoted investment in public transit and non-motorized transport. One way to effectively achieve the NUTP goals is with the Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) framework:

Avoid or reduce growth in unnecessary travel while maintaining or enhancing economic and social opportunities for interaction through better land-use planning

Prevent the shift of trips from non-motorized transport and public transport to individual motorized modes

Improve the operations, energy and carbon efficiency of each mode

A comparison of Los Angeles and Stockholm shows sharp differences in the way people move and its impact on fatalities and health. In Stockholm, vehicle kilometers travelled are less than half while walking and cycling trips are almost seven times higher than in Los Angeles. Furthermore, Stockholm experiences one-sixth the pedestrian fatalities and one-tenth the pollution on a given workday.

Most cities in India are at an initial stage of development with a growing regional economy. They have a great opportunity to integrate their transport systems and land-use in a manner consistent with the ASI principles. If implemented, they will not need major and much more expensive changes later on, as is the case with industrialized nations. There is also a need to sensitize people and policy-makers around sustainable transportation and any development is this regard, like the recently launched Raahgiri Day movement in Gurgaon, will contribute significantly in making our cities more livable.

The writer is head of urban transport, EMBARQ India