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Working to make cities liveable

Wednesday, 9 April 2014 - 6:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

It is a pity that there was such little attention in Mumbai to the presence, for a day, of one of the world's public transit and open spaces messiahs, Gil Penalosa, a Colombian who works with the 8-80 Cities initiative in Toronto. He is less well-known than his older brother, Enrique, who introduced the renowned TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS), in Bogota, Colombia after its birth in Curitiba, Brazil.

Penalosa is a tireless advocate of much greater emphasis on public transport — buses, cycles — and, by no means least, walking, in cities throughout the world. The 8-80 initiative has worked with as many as 150 cities in the last eight years and Bangalore and Mumbai were chosen for decision-makers and activists (separately!) to hear his views. It may appear that the traffic in Mumbai and other major cities in India is beyond redemption and there is little we can learn from global experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. At a meet with activists organised by Embarq, the global transport NGO which operates here too, Penalosa mentioned how if one takes all commuters — those who travel for regular jobs — motorists form only 7 per cent of the total in Mumbai. Of all people who travel to work, even as casual labour, an astounding 55 per cent walk, according to World Bank data.

This dovetails with the proportion of Mumbaikars who live in slums, so it should not be so much of a surprise.At the meet, BC Khatua, who heads the Mumbai Transformation Support Unit, agreed that the commercial capital did not have any small neighbourhood projects, such as Penalosa detailed around the world. Khatua believed that one in 10 large projects should be invested instead to small schemes. In cities everywhere, the authorities usually leave it to engineers to design mega projects, which Penalosa pointed out were "beautiful schemes which people don't want".Mumbai's transport authorities are currently working at cross purposes on ever-bigger schemes. The much-vaunted Rs3,000-crore monorail served as a one-week, one-off wonder, and usage has dropped dramatically. From the very beginning, it was by no means clear who wants to commute from Jacob's Circle in Mahalaxmi to Wadala.

The second line has been dropped.As pointed out by this writer in these columns ('A bridge that widens the gap', January 30, 2014), the dominant Congress coalition partner in the state is hell-bent on building a Rs2,900 coastal road to Versova as the extension of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, which will destroy the suburbs' west coast promenades and beaches. Its junior partner, the NCP, has floated tenders for a sea link for the same route, 900 metres off the coast, for Rs4,000 crores. Whether this is just grandstanding or a poll propaganda stunt (no guarantee that the coalition will be in power after the assembly elections in October), only the two can answer.The first proposal to build what was then called a West Island Freeway, Manhattan-style, was made by Los Angeles-based planners, Wilbur Smith in 1962. It would have hugged the coast from Nariman Point to Bandra; a similar freeway along the east coast would complete the island city's encirclement.

For financial and technical reasons, the plan ground to a halt, with Priyadarshini Garden being a reminder of the debris that was excavated as the abortive tunnel under Malabar Hill, which some have resuscitated. The irony is that while cities like LA and New York are striving to undo the mistakes they have made in prioritising highways, Mumbai and other cities here are emulating these outdated models.

LA, where the automobile lobby destroyed local railways for clover-leaf intersections and other amenities for motorists, is taxing cars to provide for public transit. In the Big Apple, former Transport Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan initiated 150 small "pilot projects" which included cycleways separated from the road. Everybody knows the passionate love affair which Americans have with their cars, but in New York, six out of every 10 residents don't possess cars. The remaining New Yorkers use their cars to get out of the city on holidays, due to the prohibitive costs of parking. Transport activists who have set up the Mumbai Transport Forum, a discussion group, have lobbied to raise such fees in Mumbai. The BMC has finally agreed to Rs60 for the first hour in select locations in south Mumbai, tapering northwards.

There will also be charges for parking on the road and at nights. The "7 per centers" can be guaranteed to protest whereas, as Enrique Penalosa pointed out in Mumbai a couple of years ago, there is no fundamental right to drive or park; it is actually a privilege. Since real estate in these central business districts can sometimes touch Rs2 lakhs a sq ft, cars which occupy space for driving or parking should pay for this.When he was in-charge of Bogota's parks some years ago, Penalosa Jr succeeded in creating as many as 200, both large and small. He clearly sees that public transit and open space are two sides of the same coin, the object of which is to make cities more livable.

Mumbai has only a little over 1 sq metre of public space per resident, so this is of utmost relevance: one has to think out of the box. Since space in all developing country cities is limited for poor people, one can ban cars on highways on holidays, as Bogota has done. Notably, a lane on an 11-km-long stretch of a Gurgaon highway has been similarly thrown open to people on Sundays.In the western Mumbai suburb of Juhu-Vile Parle, citizens, abetted by architect and activist PK Das, have not only created the Kaifi Azmi park but are now contemplating turning the nullah that runs through it and further eastwards into a walking and cycling track. If truth be told, one reason why the authorities aren't interested in such schemes, be it the much-delayed BRTS, or parks and walking tracks, is that there's no money to make on mini-schemes.

The author is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI)


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