Better design of city roads can and must deliver safety

My twitter feed and today’s newspapers are full of lament over the tragic death of Rural Development Minister Gopinath Munde, who is considered a rising star in the newly elected BJP government. Munde died of internal injuries sustained in a road accident caused by speeding and rash driving (it’s controversial who was the culprit, his own driver or the one who hit him).

The tone of the lament heavily leans towards the political implications of losing an important political persona. A few articles here and there talk about the issue that stares us in he face- If a Minister on the central government dies in a road accident in the central part of the capital, what hope is there for the millions who use this country’s roads everyday. Should we not use this incident to highlight and drive home the need to do something about killer roads?

India’s road safety record is perhaps the most dismal in the world- 140,000 ppl died in 2012 alone as per official records, one death in every 4 minutes! Often we consider only fatal motor accidents. Many pedestrians and cyclists die every day and many more are severely injured. The fact that the majority of those injured and killed are the urban poor, whom no one mourns except their families, is one of the reasons these issues never make it to the government’s priority list!

Mulling over the the press coverage and adding knowledge gleaned from friends and colleagues (Special thanks to Bharat Singh, Romi Roy, Nipesh P Narayanan, Monolita Chatterjee, Amit Bhatt and Sarika Panda Bhatt), I’d like to make a few points about the issue of road safety in India.

On policy: A revised Motor Vehicle Amendment Bill has been pending in Parliament for a decade, which will bring in stricter consequences for traffic violations like speeding and drunken driving. However, experts say that the provisions in this law are outdated already. The Hindu today carries a piece on how UN goals need to be actualized, in which Save LIFE Foundation founder Piyush Tewari says: “The sole statute governing road safety in India, the Motor Vehicles Act-1988 (MVA), has proved ineffective in addressing any of these issues decisively. Even the last tabled Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2012, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2012, was archaic and contained recommendations which will not solve the current situation on Indian roads.” 

On road design: Of the three factors- human behavior, driving behavior and infrastructure- the third is the most easily fixable while the other two take time and a combination of awareness building as well as stringent policy formulation and implementation. The best way to fix transportation infrastructure is through improved road design. There is considerable evidence to show that flyovers and pedestrian foot overbridges are NOT the way forward for city roads. Rather, controlling speeds and offering cyclists and pedestrians at-grade crossings is the humane and intelligent way to design roads in the city. This means accepting that the automobile is one of many modes in the scheme of things and not all-important and this is a huge mindset change that needs to come in if we want safer cities to live in.

Let me use an example closest to home to explain what I mean. As mentioned in coverage in Hindustan Times today, one fatal accident happens every month on the road that I live in- Sohna road in Gurgaon. The road is designed as a highway instead of a city road, complete with crash barriers on the median, slip roads and minimum crossover points. The automobile is encouraged, by design, to speed up to 60-80 kms per hour and experts tell me the road is probably designed for over 100 km per hour speeds!

Stand on the road at any time and you will see pedestrians run across the road, climb over or under these ugly metallic barriers and then dart across the remaining stretch on the other side. There are no traffic signals for pedestrians to cross at all on the entire 4 km stretch despite heavy residential and commercial activity on the road. This is a complete design failure and therefore the roads deaths are also designed to happen. The authorities mus take cognizance that they are responsible for people dying and losing livelihoods owing to injuries every single day!

The HT Gurgaon edition carried a piece today on our citizen activism to make Sohna Road safer. Let's start with our own neighborhoods.

The HT Gurgaon edition carried a piece today on our citizen activism to make Sohna Road safer. Let’s start with our own neighborhoods.

Friends and acquaintances within the design community have started various initiatives to convince the government to involve both designers and citizens during the conceptualization of infrastructure projects. A failure to do this will only create more inhuman cities to the detriment of everyone.

On changing ourselves: I harp on this all the time, but I see merit in self-reflection on these issues as citizens. We all care for our own lives and the safety of our families, but do not do anything about it. Starting with changing our own behavior behind the wheel. So sensitizing ourselves to better road behavior and above all, including pedestrians and cyclists in our scheme of things, is important. We plan to take this up on Sohna Road through RWAs soon.

In another way, it is our reluctance to engage with local politics that allows government officials to get away with ad hoc decisions, poor planning and design resulting in unsafe neighborhoods. It is our duty to be aware of what is happening in our neighborhood and the more who involve themselves to raise a voice for improved governance, the better our lives will get!

Join us in our fight for better roads in Gurgaon by spreading the message that Better design is the most effective solution to safer roads and decreased casualties. By better design we mean roads designed to control speeds, proper at-grade crossover points for pedestrians and cyclists, footpaths and cycle paths to be included, properly designed speed brakers (not the poorly constructed car breakers we get), etc. There are guidelines available for urban roads with Ministry of Urban Development and UTTIPEC and we need to pressurize MCG and HUDA (and other local authorities wherever you are) to follow these and not bring in ad hoc designs that kill more people and make driving and walking a nightmare in our city.

Allowing Indian cities to grow: Can we be bold enough to adopt global FAR densities?

I wanted to share this fascinating piece in the Next City about Indian cities and density. The article argues that low FAR (floor area ratio, that essentially controls how much you can build) makes no sense for Indian cities. We’ve known this for a while. To me, the constant back and forth about FAR and the obsession of planners and private developers with it has been a source of frustration and amusement in equal measure. Why? Because FAR alone cannot determine urban form, or infrastructure, or anything unless it is rationalized with other development controls. Unless there is a vision of what we want the city to be. The obsession with FAR is, I think, yet another symptom of the disease of technocratic planning that India suffers from.

pune.jpg

Why are we scared to allow our cities to go vertical? High-density slums don’t scare us, then why high-rise?
Picture of Pune: Slums and mid-rise dominate out cities. But Pune is relaxing its FAR and might go the global way, as per the article!

But to get back to the article. What fascinated me was the revelation that Indian cities do not really account for the fact that the per capita consumption of space will increase over time, as people become more prosperous. We need to, therefore, stop planning cities at “essentially slum densities” and be more real about the kind of people that will come to occupy, say the areas around a Metro corridor as time goes by. I also liked that the piece points out to another paradigm shift that is needed- one in which we see increasing populations as a good sign and not only as a problem. If more people want to come in, then something is happening right in a city and we need to 1-create more space inside the city for these people and 2-enable them to come in and leave more efficiently, and support meaningful suburban development.

Author Stephen J Smith cites the work of Alain Bertaud, a former World Bank researcher in the piece. Bertaud advocates that Indian planners junk the idea of low FARs and allow cities to grow out “to the same height as its peers across the world”. Can we handle that?

The Mumbai Development Plan: A Politics of Representation

ramblinginthecity:

Mumbai’s activists push for the recognition of various types of informal settlements in the city’s development plan, itself a forward looking document. There is hope yet!

Originally posted on {FAVEL issues}:

The Existing Land Use plan for the N-Ward, Mumbai shows typical reservations, with portions of the plan marked in brown—signifying “Slum/Cluster”. Source: http://mcgm.gov.in/

The Existing Land Use plan for the N-Ward, Mumbai shows typical reservations, with portions of the plan marked in brown—signifying “Slum/Cluster”. Source: http://mcgm.gov.in/

The Development Plan (DP) of Mumbai is a statutory document that lays out important parameters of growth in the city, such as land use and Development Control Regulations (DCR). This plan is comprehensively reviewed once in 20 years; currently, the DP 2014-34 is under review, scheduled to come into effect over the next year. In this day and age of technology access, this plan is very different from all other plans.

The municipal corporation and the team of consultants hired have taken great efforts to make data available and visible to people. It is common knowledge that a lot of data used in the map is secondary data available in the public domain, however, what the DP does for the first time, is it links the data…

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Designed to fail! The truth about the Indian city #urbanization #governance

I am not terribly excited by conspiracy theories. But when reality stares at you in the face too often and reality resembles a gigantic conspiracy theory, it is hard to ignore it. And that’s when life gets exciting!

I had my curtain raiser moment this morning, when I was attending a discussion on JNNURM and Indian cities this morning in which a group of very credible citizens and activists from Gurgaon were interacting with experts from rating agency ICRA to see how data could help influence a more robust citizen movement to improve this city.

What made this morning’s experience different from other presentations was the clarity it offered on core issues that have bothered me for a while. In our sector, we constantly run into systemic issues. Working with the government and running up against non-transparent ways of functioning is one source of frustration, of course. But more than that it is the growing awareness with every assignment you work on, that every inefficiency is part of a carefully orchestrated alternative system that is designed to render the official processes non-functional and redundant.

This is certainly true of Indian cities. As an entity, the city is getting short shrift in the Indian bureaucratic and political system. Despite being of enormous importance, cities are largely poorly governed, lagging behind in infrastructure and offer low quality of life and poor efficiencies.

The big questions we constantly ask are:

  • Why are cities such a low priority for state government despite the growing importance of the ‘urban’ as a source of income and growth?
  • If urbanization is a reality, as we know it to be today, why are city governments not more autonomous and powerful? Why is the Mayor a persona non grata in the Indian city?

Without going into a long historic discussion of this issue (one that has been written about extensively), let me offer the few points that emerged that struck me as interesting.

Shailesh Pathak from SREI, who has  many years of government service behind him, offered an interesting thesis. One that surmises that the growing importance of cities threatens the existing political establishment. Therefore, despite the 74th amendment, attempts to convert to systems where the Mayor is directly elected and therefore a powerful representative have actively been reversed or suppressed. He offered Maharashtra as an example.

Moreover, Shailesh also explained that the system of rotational reservation in city government ensures that councilors cannot stand for elections from the same ward twice in a row. It is therefore, we surmise, impossible to build a strong electoral base and commitment to a single ward and quite hard to get re-elected. This effectively prevents a class of city-level powerful political leadership from rising and MLAs and MPs can continue to be centers of power, often stepping in to give largesse or take decisions that councilors have been pushing for months without success. This sort of situation has been corroborated during my discussions with councilors in Gurgaon, including Ward 30 councilor Nisha Singh who was present at this morning’s meeting.

Cities at present are seen by State governments as the proverbial milking cow. Sources of revenue, to be blunt, both above the board and largely below it! Given the short term view that politicians usually have (by definition, I might add), this revenue is maximized in the ‘growth’ phase of a city, when land is available to be urbanized, zoned as per a Master Plan and much money is to be made for those who have access to this privileged information beforehand! Even above the table, money is to be made building real estate and setting up infrastructure, providing services, etc. Once this growth spurt is over, governments (read politicians and bureaucrats) tend to lose interest in performing the mundane functions of governance and service provisioning, as there are no big bucks in this any more.

In most cities across India, this is the situation. Of all the items that must be under the local government’s ambit, as per the 74th amendment, the most vital functions of urban planning, development control and infrastructure development are usurped by the State government using parastatal agencies like development authorities. The city is reduced to small functions, usually to be performed in a fractured landscape of jurisdictions. This is intensely frustrating for all those who operate at the city level (planners, bureaucrats, politicians, civil society, professionals, etc) and the general sentiment becomes one of cynicism and despair.

We cannot continue to live this paradox in which cities full of energy, enterprise and promise are log-jammed into an uncompromising political scenario. Yet, every conference and talk you attend, every report that is released re-iterates this situation of extremes, but offers absolutely no solutions! Take for example, this news item.

Delhi HT BoylePaul Boyle, who heads UK-based ESRC, spins the big story about the future of Delhi’s development as a mega city even as he outlines nearly everything that contributes to life as we desire it (all sorts of infrastructure basically) as a ‘problem’! I find this sort of position absolutely ridiculous and a fallout of a vision that is only driven by economic development figures like the GDP without an eye out for overall inclusive growth. But the essential message is about the importance of the city as a driver of growth, which we cannot and must not deny.

We have no choice but to ensure that cities function well given the trend towards urbanization that we cannot stem (another fact that the political class keeps turning a blind eye to). If cities in India need to meet their potential, it is pretty clear that some significant changes need to happen. In political mindsets, in legal and administrative processes, in institutional mechanisms and in the attitudes of urban citizens who must be more discerning and more demanding for a quality of life that they most certainly deserve.

Are there smart ideas for cities and errr, slums? #informality #Delhi

This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.

smartercitiessmat slums-2smart slums-1On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!

Internal migration and urbanization: Why we need a nuanced view of how these intersect

UNESCO’s Internal Migration in India Initiative launched an important publication yesterday (see here for details). ‘Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India‘ draws focus to an issue we often sweep under the carpet, asking us to confront head-on the issue of India’s large population of internal migrants- some 326 million, close to 30% of India’s population as per estimates by the NSSO. I’ve been working in the area of migration and as an architect and urban planner, I see substantial linkages between urbanization and migration. Linkages that we need to scrutinize minutely if we are to create urban living environments that are equitable and enjoyable to all of us.

ImageTo begin with, we need to understand which urban areas migrants are opting to move to. In this regard, these figures from the report stand out- 43% of Delhi’s population comprises internal migrants. However, it is not just the metros, but cities like Surat (58%), Ludhiana (57%), Faridabad (55%), Nashik (50%), Pune (45%), Lucknow (28%), Patna (27%) and Kanpur (19%) that need to gear up to support migrant populations urgently. Cities often without strong planning and governance frameworks, and low capacities to create and implement sensitive city level planning programs. Yesterday Minister Jairam Ramesh mentioned, for instance, that data from the 2011 census highlights the presence of 3900 Census towns that fulfill various characteristics of being urban but are still managed by gram panchayats! Clearly, these places have no way of understanding or managing the rapid changes they are experiencing and we see a catastrophic impact on social cohesion as well as the environment. There is no doubt, therefore, that urbanization in the country needs to be seen with new eyes and local municipal bodies be strengthened substantially.

In all this, the migrant plays a significant role as a contributor to the economies of the cities that receive them. As we go about our daily lives, whatever we may be busy with, we interact with migrants across social class and from various parts of the country. We are migrants as well, often enough. The discussion at the book launch yesterday therefore, distinguishes between educated migrants that opt to migrate in search of better opportunities (like many of us) and those who need to migrate in order to find paid employment; in other words, they migrate as a survival strategy and this is often termed as distress migration. In that sense, the story of migration into urban India becomes a story of class, in fact another dimension to the class issues that urban Indians are facing on a day to day basis.

I make two observations out of this. As a citizen, I see a keener analysis of migration as a way to develop a more nuanced approach to how we lead our lives in the city. I have written often in this blog about middle class bias, our suspicion of the ‘other’ in our midst (on intolerance here and on the need for idealism here) and also of the shrinking of public spaces that help us interact with people from various walks of life (on community driven public spaces here) and retain our tolerant attitude towards those who are unlike us. Bringing to the fore the stories of migrant families, their experiential journey as they adjust to urban lives is an effective way of highlighting that they are not so much unlike us, their aspirations are not so different, and it may not be unthinkable to treat them in a humane manner and welcome them into the community. A friend told me yesterday that upper class women (madams) in the Durga Puja pandal in my neighborhood had literally shooed away Bengali women who are migrant domestic workers; the same women who are their support system in taking care of their homes, who cook, clean and babysit for them! Clearly, this sort of bias needs to be addressed.

Second, only by being able to understand the type of migrants in a specific city can city planners hope to cater to the needs of the future. Cities like Gurgaon may have, unfortunately, missed the boat. But all those new urban areas scattered across the nation might benefit hugely from research that creates fine and nuanced distinctions between circular/seasonal migrants and more permanent ones, as well as from studies that map migrant consumption choices  of both goods and services.  Urbanizing areas need to have in place systems to monitor incoming migrants. It is debatable, but perhaps the Aadhaar could be a means of tracking data as well as providing portable services to migrants, as was discussed at yesterday’s event.

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

My research focuses on housing, which is one of the most challenging issues cities are facing today. Nuanced data on migration (in addition to other forms of data on employment, labour, industry, demographics, etc),  is imperative to be able to decide what sort of housing must be planned in a city- how much rental and how much ownership, what sort of affordability slabs must these be in, etc. The role of governments in this is critical, as land is a crucial resource. The earlier we recognize the urgency of this need and use it to create new data collection, analysis and planning systems for upcoming urban areas, the better we will be able to reap the benefits of urbanization, as indeed as a nation we should and will.

Do we indulge in wishful thinking for super dense cities?

The thought popped out at me as I read an interview of Jonathan Solomon, who has authored (along with fellow architects Clara Wong and Adam Frampton) what appears to be a fascinating book called Cities Without Ground on alternate networks and spaces in Hong Kong. In the interview, Solomon talks about how the impracticality of trying to impose solutions in other contexts. He says, “Paul Zimmerman (HK district councillor and urban design activist) and I disagree vehemently about this — his position is that all the footbridges are more or less bad and that Hong Kong should act more like a Dutch city. We need to make safer, healthier streets for pedestrians. Pedestrianizing Queen’s Road makes a lot of sense. But there’s a lot of wishful thinking involved thinking that Hong Kong will suddenly turn into Linden or Delft.”

To me, that sort of summed up a lot of how urban designers and planners function. Delhi, where most of my work is based, is also unique in the layers of history and social complexity. While we admire experiments in other cities globally, we find it challenging to replicate best practices in the context of Delhi because of its unique structure and settlement typologies. Furthermore, the urban poor in Delhi have incrementally built highly dense settlements that require context specific solutions to enhance quality of life. To offer those, we need to deeply understand how this density works or doesn’t, it’s networks, how spaces inter-relate and a whole lot more. To assume that Delhi must become a Shanghai or a Singapore, or even Curitiba or Medellin is obviously naive.

I am piqued by the graphic approach Solomon’s book takes. Could we use advanced graphics software and innovative observation to first understand and then re-imagine Delhi’s dense informal spaces?

Growing cities: Are there patterns at all?

It’s a question urbanists obsess about all the time. Is there a pattern in how cities grow? If we can find one, we would be in a much better position to plan, manage and grow our urban areas, we argue. But cities are shifty, complex creatures. My own take has always been that we can shape cities in small ways, but mostly our role as city planners, managers or designers is to manage change. I tend to be very skeptical of large, sweeping gestures and strongly feel that community-led neighbourhood level changes, incremental design is the right way to view cities.

This study by Prof Beveridge at Queens College, therefore, was very interesting to me. It compares three schools of urbanist theory in the US and finds that while the conventional patterns remained true in the first half of the 20th century and even up until the post-war era, recent decades see no real patterns coming forth. Cities are behaving in more complex, random ways.

A study of cities elsewhere, in India specifically, would be needed to understand the global significance of these findings, but to me it only confirms my belief that we urban practitioners need to drastically change the way we are looking at cities. What do you think?

Comments on social engineering and urbanization in China, India

I won’t say I am shocked by the news that China is moving 250 million rural residents to newly created towns and cities over the next 12 years. In keeping with an economic policy restructuring that aims to rely less on exports and increase domestic demand, China is re-engineering the lives of rural people in a bid to convert them into urban consumers who will boost their economy in the future. As rural homes are bulldozed and replaced by highrises, people’s lives are being thrown into turmoil and I can only imagine the sense of loss and outrage being experienced by those who are the guinea pigs of this economic experiment.

It seems to be standard for governments, not just in China, to simply decide what’s good for thousands of their citizens; no skin off their backs, just a steely face and a shrug!

It’s not just China, where in the absence of democratic institutions, it is perhaps easier to implement sweeping decisions like this. When Delhi decided to relocate slum dwellers to far-flung resettlement colonies before the Commonwealth Games 2010, it also subscribed to a notion that world-class cities were those that did not have slums, were exceedingly clean and I would say, devoid of anything spontaneous at all! What gives governments the right to take decisions that benefit a small minority in the name of the greater common good, decisions that often follow no proven success mantra (indeed defy everything suggested by previous experience!) and put those who are poor and disadvantages through suffering and misery? When such massive changes are carried out without consultation, without debate and without any window for recourse, it violates not only democratic principles, but humanistic ones as well. What is the hope then for societies, indeed civilizations, based on the premise of exploitation?

Yes, yes, I know. The poor cannot hope to move toward prosperity if there is no economic growth and therefore they need to sacrifice their lives at the altar of national growth. I am familiar with that line of thinking and I find it hard to agree.

Urban planners like me are trained in the great tradition of modernism and taught that everything can be planned. I have come to believe that there is much to be said for not planning, simply leaving things be. A balanced perspective would mean that we neither over-plan, nor abandon planning completely. We try to propose the future based on an informed understanding of the present, including physical and socio-economic conditions as well as aspirations of the people whose lives will be impacted by what you propose. This is not just a question of human rights, but also a matter of common sense, if our objective is to build a society where people can hope to lead happy lives and contribute meaningfully to the collective progress of their communities, cities, nations. I am suggesting that the desire for growth needs to be balanced with measures that allow people to opt for alternatives ways of life.

In China, would it not be possible to identify areas slated for urbanization and then allow options for farmers to either opt for urban jobs by retraining for them and changing their lifestyle, or be offered alternative space where they can continue to live rural lives. I am sure enough young people would opt to join to new economy, while others would still be able to live lives of dignity and earn enough to feed themselves. This way, reports say, the old and the infirm are reduced to playing mah-jong all day without having any useful role to play in these new cities and towns.

Nero Fiddles while Rome Burns

ramblinginthecity:

I always love the passion Nipesh’s writing. Dear friend, you hit the mail on the head with this!

Originally posted on ...deep within...:

Flyover at ITO

Flyover at ITO

They say it was the first fight for the freedom of India, the sepoy mutiny of 1857, where the company was at the verge of loosing its colony. Soon after, the British realized that they can’t have such loose control over the native. Massive restructuring was done, huge chunks of Shahjahanabad was demolished and rebuilt, and almost every British city saw a new cut-through road called nai sadak and so as an imposing ghanta ghar. This haussmannization of Indian urban led to a new planning regime, the one where planning meant a set of controls, rules to keep the native population in control. This outlook where planning is synonymous to control, a guidelines approach, governs even today the development authorities and the academia equally. Masterplans were created in closed board rooms, rendering itself appropriate to the name, to master ‘we the people’s lives, to keep we…

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