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Contradictions of urban mobility: riding a motorcycle in India

By Daniel Oviedo Hernandez, on 14 July 2015

The city of Ahmedabad is the seventh largest in India and an interesting case of rapid urban development and large investments on transport-related infrastructure. Policies implemented in the city in recent years aim to respond to challenges common to cities in the Global South, such as rapidly increasing populations, rising income and extensive private motoring.

By 2011, nearly 120,000 of Ahmedabad’s 6.35 million inhabitants used the recently developed Bus Rapid Transit -BRT- system each day. Its name, Janmarg, translates as ‘The people’s way’. Due to my increasing interest in the development and performance of systems like this, and the common ground for comparison with the BRT of my home city Bogotá, in Colombia, I spent nearly four months in Ahmedabad.

Ahmedabad 3_500

My First Impressions

It is commonly said that first impression last. As a transport planner, my first impression of the city was of a chaotic system governed by individual rather than collective goals for mobility.

Therefore, the first thing that I asked myself when interacting with Ahmedabad’s traffic was: how does such a system work? My own experience later would show me how. Furthermore, my available travel choices led me to experiment first-hand with the local market and conditions for private two-wheel motoring.

I became a transport planner driving a motorcycle in a city I had previously understood to be unable to organise its transport system and struggle at the hands of too many private vehicles. Despite my lack of familiarity with the city and its traffic rules and behaviour, the decision to drive myself became both a game changer and a moral and intellectual struggle for me.

Urban mobility in Ahmedabad

The streets of Ahmedabad present a very rich transport ‘ecosystem’. A large share of travel takes place through walking, cycling and public transport – formal and informal. The latter encompasses public and private bus operators, rail, auto-rickshaws and taxis.

As with most cities in India, the increase in private motoring of two and four-wheel vehicles is palpable. Data from the last two decades shows per annum growth rates of 15% for two-wheelers and 10% for private vehicles. In large and medium-sized cities 40–50% of urban households own a two-wheeler [1].

Recent initiatives attempt to palliate the effects of this traffic mix in regards to congestion and environmental pollution. These include converting the entire fleet of rickshaws to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), developing a BRT, and increasing road capacity. Nevertheless, demand for public transport and increases in private motoring look set to continue at steady rates.

Ahmedabad 1_500

The environment for travel choice in Ahmedabad partly explains such behaviour, particularly among medium and higher-income groups.

  1. There is a disconnection between bus services (both regular and BRT) between each other and with other forms of mobility.
  2. High temperatures incentivise motorised travel or at the very least act as a clear disincentive to walking and cycling.
  3. The infrastructure network gives priority to motor vehicles rather than pedestrian spaces (including sidewalks, overpasses and traffic lights), which indicates a system built primarily for private vehicles.

Contradictions in Ahmedabad’s transport planning

These seem to contradict some of the underlying objectives of other recent investments and the general discourse of sustainable transport. Short and medium-term investments, such as Ahmedabad’s BRT have taken precedence over shaping the long-term urban growth and achieving sustained ridership of the public transport system [2].

This of course, places enormous strain on the city’s road network, leading to congestion, long travel times and pollution, particularly in peak traffic times. However, the general mobility in the city can be said to be quite dynamic during other hours.

Short discussions I held with motorists revealed that in most cases people driving were willing to overlook these costs in exchange for the freedom of mobility, security and comfort that the vehicle provided, something to which I could agree with based on my own experience.

Why do people drive themselves?

One particular aspect stood out in some discussions: the social status associated with owning a vehicle. Here the private vehicle becomes another instrument for social differentiation.

Not only there is an unequal distribution of resources and options for mobility, but travel choices themselves serve as a mechanism for stratifying society [3]. Motorists and non-motorists are perceived as somehow different social groups, and this in turn reinforces the choice of private vehicles over non-motorised and public transport.

Despite awareness of the negative externalities of private motoring and the benefits of public and non-motorised transport from social, economic, and environmental perspectives, urban and transport professionals are not exempt of making choices in relation to their personal mobility.

In fact, the practitioners, academics, students and planners in disciplines related to sustainable urban development that travel by private vehicles in India and many other cities in the global south can be surprisingly high. This is a contradiction, though not an uncommon one.

Ahmedabad 2_500

In light of such a reality the question arises: If people planning and researching urban transport make the choice of using private motoring, how can we expect to reduce usage of these transport modes amongst the general public? The answer is as much a matter of policy as it is of civic culture and collective action.

What does this mean for integrated transport planning?

A conflict seen consistently across cities in India, as in Ahmedabad, is a lack of traffic management and enforcement.

There is a disconnection between policy objectives, which lead to large investments in infrastructure and modernisation of transport as an urban service on the one hand, and very limited actions taken in the daily operation to strengthen sustainable alternatives for making effective use of such infrastructure on the other.

How should we address these contradictions? It is clear that for people with sufficient resources and choice private motoring will always be an attractive option, and it is their right to have it. The problem lies more on how to make use of available alternatives and how the system and the rest of society can contribute to a virtuous cycle rather than the current vicious one whereby more vehicles leads to more road investment and so to even more vehicles.

Regulation and planning play a central role in enabling positive changes, as it has been shown in other developing cities in the past (examples include Curitiba, Bogotá, Buenos Aires) [4 & 5].

However, the role of civil society in changing paradigms of travel choice is a must in order to achieve lasting transformations. If individual choice places personal benefit before costs for society, it is the role of both policy and citizens to increase awareness of these costs and empower people to adopt sustainable practices.

The contradictions we face in similar situations can inform our understanding of our own and others’ behaviour, maybe shedding some light on how to strengthen our practice and attain lasting positive change.

 

Useful References:

  1. Tiwari, Geetam. “Urban transport in Indian cities.” Urban Age (2007): 1-4.
  2. Cervero, Robert, and Danielle Dai. “BRT TOD: Leveraging transit oriented development with bus rapid transit investments.” Transport Policy 36 (2014): 127-138.
  3. Levy, Caren. “Travel choice reframed:“deep distribution” and gender in urban transport.” Environment and Urbanization (2013): 0956247813477810.
  4. Brand, Peter, and Julio D. Dávila. “Mobility innovation at the urban margins: Medellín’s Metrocables.” City 15.6 (2011): 647-661.
  5. Cervero, Robert B. “Linking urban transport and land use in developing countries.” Journal of Transport and Land Use 6.1 (2013): 7-24.

Daniel Oviedo is a PhD candidate at the DPU where he is examining urban mobility in Colombian cities. Last year he spent around four months exploring the governance of Janmarg and its effects on the mobility of Ahmedabad as part of the UKNA (Urban Knowledge Network Asia) research exchange.

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