Wrong trees, wasted barks

Our problems in urban governance emanate from our inability to pose the right questions

Imagine standing in the middle of a congested road in any Indian city. Each one of us can identify multiple problems with the road and the traffic. But what is the solution?

Discussions invariably lead to a comparison with China. Quick on its heels is abject surrender to the dictum: China is not a democracy like ours. It can acquire land for road widening by easily kicking people off their property. This is impossible in India, with public protests and endless court battles. Ergo, Chinese cities are better. Despondency in, discussion over.

Next comes land acquisition. While Urban Land Acquisition (ULA) is an important tool, government’s perceived inability to acquire land in cities becomes a catch-all excuse for giving up. How did world class cities become world class? If our city governments miraculously acquired private land for development, would our cities transform themselves into something world class? These questions need serious examination.

Let us first painfully remind ourselves of some realities. Our urban governance system is in shambles. Routine chores that even semi-modern cities take for granted – effective solid waste management, well designed and engineered roads that cater to all its citizens, robust public transportation, round-the-clock portable water, vibrant open spaces, vigilant public health system, safe and well light neighbourhoods – are non-existent or infuriatingly ineffective.

Planning – a pet demand, and peeve, of Indian citizens – requires sophisticated capabilities to evolve a progressive thought regarding the poor, the elderly, the differently-abled, and the environment. It requires a city’s continuous engagement with its citizens in a multi-layered dialogue; a constant learning from the experience of other cities, not to mention our own; periodic strengthening and scraping of laws to increase individual freedom while maximising public good. Can we do any of these satisfactorily?

To use the worn-out management cliché, you can manage only what you can measure. But our cities never measure outputs, never collect data, and never save governance history and knowledge. A governance data centre that collates disparate data from myriad agencies and processes them into practical insights is inconceivable. More examples abound but this litany would suffice.

Let us get back to standing in the middle of any arterial road. What does one see? Congestion and chaos, deadlocked junctions, choked roads, pedestrians on road, encroached sidewalks, huge swaths misused by haphazard parking, unusable puddles and no-man’s lands. The city soon falls into a simplistic trap: acquire land, widen the road and provide more lanes for traffic. The problem is solved.

If you ask the wrong question, you will get the wrong answer. In India the burden of solving congestion usually falls on the city corporation (or the Highways Department which, believe it or not, manages key city roads). This would be fine if the city had control over other elements in the fight against congestion – parking, public transportation, traffic police, regulation of vehicle purchase and registration, power to levy taxes for congestion and pollution. But thanks to our highly centralised form of governance, most of these functions come under the purview of state and central governments. It is easier to straighten a dog’s tail than to ensure a coordinated, comprehensive approach to urban solutions.

Coupled with inadequacies in planning capabilities, which also fall under the purview of the state, and its inability to consider area or city wide solutions, the city asks the wrong question: what can be done about congestion at this junction or on this road. Predictably the appointed consultant counts vehicle, measures road width and comes to the inevitable conclusion (road capacity already exceeded), repeats mantras (junction with 10,000 Passenger Car Unit (PCU) deserves a flyover) and hence the inescapable solution – flyover, road widening or elevated roads.

Elaborate reports with dazzling graphics and passing mention of land acquisition follows. Since ULA runs into expensive and predictable troubles, the project is not implemented. Public frustration rises another notch and resulting discussions curse the usual scapegoats – the poor, hawkers, cyclists, and the pedestrians. To get around this quandary, suggestions to eliminate para-transit and buses from roads are also seriously entertained, completely ignoring that these vehicles carry millions while occupying disproportionately little road space – exact opposite of what private vehicles do. Flyovers and elevated roads have become symbols of our lazy leap over the mess we can’t handle collectively.

Are there no ways to keep PCU at say, 5,000? Why doesn’t the romantic Paris, the hyperactive Hong Kong or the boisterous New York have flyovers at every junction? Surely more than one car per citizen and a flyover at each junction are not beyond their reach.

The answer is simple. That would require asking tough, complex questions and deliberately translating concepts into reality. These cities start changing land use patterns to methodically densify and develop along transit corridors, as pioneered by Curitiba and followed by all world class cities. They implement an agile public transportation system that includes massive Metro Rail network, and an even bigger complimentary bus network. Many even convert strategic bus routes into Bus Rapid Transit routes to make them even more effective and user friendly – as in Bogota and Guangzhou. They implement last mile connectivity using feeder and para-transit systems. They implement dynamic data centers to constantly be in tune with changing demand patterns and city’s development or decay. And have common ticketing to make the transit a breeze.

There would be sticks to go with these carrots. They implement congestion charges to influence behavior and introduce stricter vehicle purchase quota systems to contain demand. Budapest instituted sophisticated city wide parking management systems that charge market prices for parking – acknowledging that free parking is the enemy of public transport and contributor to congestion and pollution.

Modern cities do these and more. But their addition of new roads and road widening, if any, wouldn’t be a knee jerk reaction to every congestion in sight. Compare our cities to say, Hong Kong and you realise that we are spoilt for road space.

This brings us to the crux of the governance conundrum. While advanced cities have the ability to manage every inch of public space using modern governance techniques, we don’t. They have the ability to ask the right sophisticated questions – not in isolation but in dialogue with citizens, experts, research and development – we don’t. These cities wield carrots and sticks and stand up to special interest groups for city’s good, we don’t.

Cycles that deaden the soul of the city – congestion, land acquisition, road widening, congestion and despair – are just one example of the emaciation of our urban governance machinery. This machinery, from which emanates unsophisticated questions and simplistic answers, needs urgent reform and strengthening if it is to deliver good governance, instead of what it does at present – deliver frustration and cynicism.

Photo: ccsdteacher