What commuters want
Rather than a top-bottom framework which assumes what people need, a bottom-up framework involving user perceptions will help redesign urban transport infrastructure
Mobility is fundamental in how one explores a city, makes sense of, and dwells in it — how much time it takes you on daily journeys for work or leisure, what are the costs involved, what paths you take or avoid, bottlenecks on roads, available spaces (both physical and social) for walking at any time of the day, cycle tracks, and your access to these utilities based on how you are socially placed.
How easy or difficult access to urban mobility infrastructure is, plays a key role in defining what a city means to its people. Providing an inclusive urban mobility infrastructure is a crucial step in making our cities accessible for all those who reside in them, and co-create their cities' lives.
If achieved or even included in the planning processes, a user-based approach to transport aligns with several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which include health, work-life, reduced inequalities, clean energy, and gender equality among others.
In recent years, dialogues on urban mobility infrastructure in developing countries have come to include user experiences while planning and designing projects, albeit at a nascent stage.
Most conversations are tuned to physical infrastructure, a move to encourage public over private transport, cost-benefit analysis of the services provided, and more recently in the wake of the climate crisis, sustainable transport measures.
Connecting urban designs with citizens' needs is a concept that is still under-utilised by most local officials and even urban planners. But some cities are beginning to change that. For example, Mexico City is enhancing its sustainable transport systems and revitalising public spaces.
The newest corridor of the Metrobús bus rapid transit system took a complete streets approach, which aims to design streets that account for all road users, providing safe infrastructure for transport, cars, cyclists, and pedestrians (Welle and King, 2014).
In India, the 2014 revision of the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) (launched in 2006) puts the impetus on moving people, rather than vehicles. Its objectives outline providing sustainable mobility and accessibility to all citizens for their jobs, education, social services and recreation at affordable cost and within a reasonable time.
Where the people-centric intent is commendable, the details of this national policy soon fall back to economic growth and innovative technologies. Another area of concern is the treatment of 'people' as a homogenous category without any detailing of how the experience of using transport is dependent on recognising the diversity among the commuters — be it in terms of our physical abilities, our economic differences, or the genders we identify as.
In not giving space to such nuances, the NUTP 2014 only highlights the existing frameworks which are pre-dominant in majority urban mobility infrastructure conversations.
A United Nations report projects that by 2050, 68 per cent of the world's population will live in cities compared to the current 55 per cent (United Nations, 2018). Closer home, over 30 per cent of the Indian population currently lives in urban areas. This will grow to 40 per cent by 2030, and 58 per cent by 2050 (United Nations, 2018).
As our cities expand, what paths are they choosing to become smart, sustainable, and inclusive? Most urban utility infrastructures in India prioritise contribution to economic growth and technological solutions over other aspects like user perceptions, without which any new measures cannot be implemented fully or achieve success.
Our urban mobility infrastructures echo a similar sentiment since a user-centric approach of the services being provided is often left out. A trend observable in several growing cities is the increasing reliance on private automobiles which has contributed to air pollution, a decline in public health, traffic congestion, and rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Conversations around this focus on degrading air quality, environmental costs, health impacts, and traffic congestion through a paradigm which emphasises technology-led interventions. Often, these incorporate socio-cultural aspects as an after-thought or give them minor credence.
Where innovations in technologies are necessary, without an understanding of what people want and what works where these can at best be short-lived measures. For instance, what are the reasons that people in a particular city might prefer using private automobiles over public transport?
Approached from a different aspect, rather than a top-bottom framework which assumes what people need, a bottom-up framework involving user perceptions will help in redesigning urban transport infrastructure to suit their needs and address the other issues simultaneously.
(Saakshi Joshi is a former Senior Research Associate with the Urban Water-Waste Management Unit, CSE, New Delhi)