Is it possible to think about the right to mobility in Indian cities?

    Most people in order to go about their lives, and ultimately exercise their rights, need to move from one point to another in the city where they live, whether this is a short or long distance to travel. A person has to move daily from their home to go to work, buy food, go to school or college, complete an administrative procedure, go to the bank to withdraw money, go to a health clinic or hospital, find a public space for recreation, and even be able to participate in religious rites or visit family or friends. And the list goes on. Without a doubt, the conditions of mobility will determine proportionally an individual’s possibilities of accessing these rights. This is a vision that also applies to Indian cities.

    There is a spatial dimension that we must consider when thinking about the design of comprehensive sustainable urban mobility policies in India's mega-cities: density, expansion, and distribution. Mobility will be determined in its planning by the amount of population in a city and its concentration in a certain territory (density); by the surface area, geography, morphology, and topography of the cities (expansion); and by the place or area of the city where the population lives (distribution). Taking these three elements into account, we maythink that the greater the density, the lesser the capacity for expansion, and the greater the distribution of the population within the territory of the city, the more difficult it is to plan and implement sustainable mobility that has as its premise the accessibility to said right.

    India includes seven major metropolises (with populations of over 4 million), 28 medium ones (between 1 and 4 million), and 13small ones (between 0.8 and 1 million). There are 48 cities where the process of urbanization continues to accelerate, causing a process of expansion that is disproportionate to the capacity of soil, environmental, and social resilience.

    Mobility planning for the sustainable development in these cities, from the perspective of mobility, has, at least, under the characteristics mentioned above, four conditioning factors that exponentially limit their citizens’ access to their rights.

1)     Structural and accessibility inequalities. The living conditions of most citizens in India are determined by situations of extreme and severe poverty that affect their living conditions. In addition to these inequalities in habitat, and more specifically from the point of view of mobility, there are three negative externalities: entry into/exit from the neighborhood; distance from a public transport stop; insecurity when moving from their home to a possible point of connection.

 

2)     Time-spatial saturation/incongruence. In general, what we observe in Indian cities are collapsed, disjointed, and disconnected mobility systems. This has an impact on travel times, especially considering the distances that people must travel based on an inequitable spatial distribution in terms of access to basic services (health and education) and workplaces. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that the availability and quality of these services, or the lack thereof, defines the quality of life for this segment of society, as well as the level of social inclusion existing in the social fabric of a city. Although the variation in mobility in Indian cities is presumed to be due to delays caused by traffic congestion, it is mainly due to incongruent mobility.

 

3)     Planning is another weakness: the poor quality of infrastructure, information systems, and passenger and pedestrian services in many Indian cities makes it difficult to mobilize captive users and makes it unattractive to potential users. Irregular intervals, lack of comfort, and passenger safety have led to a rapid deterioration of services in cities.

 

4)     Institutional-jurisdictional. As far as the institutional level is concerned, the biggest drawback is the regulatory framework, since there are laws, regulations and policies at the national, provincial, and metropolitan levels that are not consistent with each other. Thus, infrastructure planning and implementation is the responsibility of multiple agencies that do not necessarily function in a coordinated manner. The fact that there are different decision makers makes it necessary to have a metropolitan coordination and articulation agency that provides a tool for metropolitan governance.

 

How are cities in India moving forward to reduce these gaps?

    There is a favorable context in India due to the intention of the national government to make a significant investment in urban public transport. This investment in urban infrastructure will enable the leverage and scalability of a cost effective mass transit system.

On the other hand, there are cities in India that have made substantial progress in recent years and have an interesting prospect of replication. I would like to mention some of them by way of illustration with three examples.

Kochi. The Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL) is responsible for providing a mass public transportation system in the city, including the newly opened Kochi Metro. Together with the state government, Kochi began the trial run of the e-buses in the metropolitan area. KMRL also initiated projects to achieve last-mile connectivity with e-rickshaws, and to enhance safe access by focusing on active mobility projects. To create a unified and integrated transport network, an Urban Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) has been approved.

Bangalore. The Bangalore Intra-city grid (BIG) bus network reorganizes city bus routes to increase efficiency, enhance service, and make sustainable transport a better option for city residents. Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), EMBARQ India helped conceptualize, plan, and implement the Bangalore Intracity Grid (BIG) Bus Network, a system of high-frequency, integrated services that are providing significant improvements in quality and capacity.

Chennai. The city has taken drastic measures to improve the situation and the Non-Motorised Transport Policy validates its efforts. The policy, a first of its kind in India, mandates a minimum of 60% of transport funding to create and maintain walking and cycling infrastructure in the city. So far, Chennai has retrofitted over 75 km of walkable streets and is redesigning an additional 60 km. Additionally, to support cycling, Chennai is planning a Public Bicycle Sharing (PBS) system with 5,000 cycles.

What could be done to deepen the change?

    There are at least three lines of action that the Indian metropolises and cities can intensify in coordination with the national government, the regional governments, and the international cooperation agencies with which they have already been working on these transformations for at least 5 years.

    Metropolitan planning and governance of mobility is key. Strategic and comprehensive 15-20 year plans will make the continuous infrastructure that an urban transport system involves more efficient, more interconnected, more accessible, and less costly for users in terms of time and economy. The overlap of jurisdictions and decision makers forces us to think about a metropolitan institutionalization (e.g. an agency) for the governance of mobility and transport systems. This will be vital because cities in India will continue to grow demographically and develop economically, making them more and more complex, and decision makers have to make management and people's lives simpler.

    The diversity, complexity, and size of the cities in India are determining factors that when thinking about urban, inter-urban, and metropolitan mobility systems require two characteristics: adaptability and accessibility. The adaptability to fit a mobility circuit that contemplates the geographic, spatial, population, social behavior, and socio-economic conditions.And accessibility to achieve the maximum goal of allowing each of the inhabitants of cities and metropolises in India to have the possibility of using public transport or micro-mobility as a means to move around and develop their life project.This is a combined system of micro-macro mobility to ensure all citizens the right to mobility.

    In the next five to ten years, more focus should be placed on investment in two sectors of mobility. Indian cities have two characteristics: first, there is a culture of using two-wheeled means of transport (motorcycles and bicycles); and secondly, almost 75% of public transport trips are made by bus. The governments that manage the mobility and transport system should focus on these two existing realities. There should be a commitment in public investment to increase bicycle use (with its consequent benefits to health, the environment, and the flow of people), which involves deploying a two-way bicycle path system, city connectivity paths -point to point -, and networks or commuter paths for areas where the use of motor vehicles is to be minimized. And at the same time, there should be a public-private alliance to strengthen the bus transportation system with the development of infrastructure that prioritizes the circulation of buses in cities; more and better buses (more to increase capacity, electric to decrease environmental impacts); intelligent routes (and with greater frequency and coverage of time slots) that cover the different points of connection in the cities; and an information system that is accessible to citizens for the use of the transportation system.

    Returning to the question in the title, the answer is YES. The conditions are in place for Indian metropolises to progressively guarantee a sustainable mobility system for all their citizens over the next 10 years. The capacity for economic, productive, and personal development of most Indian cities will depend significantly on this. Combining governance and human rights is the key.

By Alejandro Collia: Executive Director of Global & Local. Former Executive Secretary at the Federal Human Rights Council of Argentina. Urban conflict resolution, collaborative process and human rights expert. Trainer on urban and mobility planning, citizens and community participation processes, circular economy and cities, tactical urbanism. 

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