The United Nations has designated the first Monday of October every year as World Habitat Day since 1986. The purpose is to reflect on the state of our towns and cities and the basic right of all to adequate shelter. It is also intended to remind the world that we all have responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns.
This year, the UN has chosen the day’s theme ‘Urban Mobility’ because mobility and access to goods and services is essential to an efficient functioning of cities and towns as they expand.
Urban mobility and transport is vital for the cities’ functioning. On the other hand, it causes many problems, notably in densely-inhabited areas. As cities grow rapidly, motor vehicle use increases and traffic flow varies just as quickly, creating or worsening severe problems. Road traffic crashes account for 1.2 million deaths per year, and this figure is likely to double by 2030 to become the fifth leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation. Many cities face urban mobility issues like increased road congestion, wasted time due to traffic delays and increased energy consumption resulting in more carbon emissions.
Roads also contribute to effective mobility, which is crucial for a city’s prosperity. Congested roads and poor facilities for pedestrians are the most pervasive transport problems in developing countries. To reduce traffic by maintaining or increasing the level of mobility for citizens and goods, one challenge is how to use the current infrastructure more efficiently. The purpose of transportation is to gain access to destinations, activities, services and goods. Urban planning and design should focus on how to bring people and places together by creating cities that focus on accessibility, rather than simply increasing the length of urban transport infrastructure or increasing the movement of people or goods (rather than movement of vehicles).
There is a need to create a highly-efficient, flexible, responsive, safe and affordable urban mobility system with the least the amount of traffic and travel while ensuring environmental sustainability. Accessible cities encourage a shift towards more sustainable modes of transportation and draw more and more travellers out of cars and onto trains, buses and sidewalks. This means giving priority to public transport, goods vehicles, pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles. It depends on providing efficient public transport services and reducing the demand for motorised travel.
India is experiencing a steady increase in the numbers of cars and roads. This has led to a constant rise in road deaths. Transport demand in most Indian cities has increased substantially due to increases in population as a result of both natural increase and migration from rural areas and smaller towns. Availability of motorised transport and increase in household income and commercial activities have further added to transport demand. In many cases, demand has outstripped road capacity. A high level of pollution is another undesirable feature of overloaded streets. Statistics indicate that traffic accidents are a primary cause of accidental deaths in Indian cities. The main reasons for this are the prevailing imbalance in modal split, inadequate transport infrastructure, and its suboptimal use. Public transport systems have not been able to keep pace with the rapid increases in demand over the past few decades. Bus services in particular have deteriorated and their relative output has been further reduced as passengers have turned to personalised modes and intermediate public transport.
The pace of urbanisation in India creates an urgent opportunity to provide safe streets. The objective of the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) for India is to ensure safe, affordable, quick, comfortable, reliable and sustainable access for the growing number of city residents to jobs, education and recreation. The policy’s salient features include incorporating urban transportation as an important parameter at the urban planning stage, rather than being a consequential requirement. Apart from this, the NUTP will encourage integrated land use and transport planning in cities so that travel distances are minimised and access to livelihood, education and other social needs is improved.
Over the past decade, there has been a shift in many countries from overcoming congestion to improving mobility. Improving mobility is less about engineering and more about changing behaviour. Improving mobility starts with public participation, consultation, focus group discussions, consensus building and cooperation among different stakeholders.
Instead, Indian cities can follow the example of developing cities in countries like Brazil, Mexico and Philippines which have sustainable transport policies, encouraging high-density, mixed-use development near high-quality mass transit, to improve the quality of life for their residents.
For improving the traffic flow of passenger and freight vehicles, there are currently some projects on the implementation of cooperative intelligent transport systems and services (ITS), which enables exchanging data between vehicles and roadside units. Innovative solutions enabling smart new services based on information and communications technology (ICT) can help cities address these issues by providing alternatives in combination with other solutions.
Shifting to more efficient and safer modes like walking, cycling and mass transit can create sustainable urban mobility and fuel efficiency. Some cities have taken innovative steps to enhance mobility. A bus rapid transit (BRT) system delivers fast, comfortable and cost-effective urban mobility.
There must be a general recognition that without public transport cities would be even less viable.
There is a need to encourage public transport instead of personal vehicles. This requires both an increase in quantity and quality of public transport and effective use of demand as well as supply-side management measures. People should also be encouraged to use non-motorised transport and investments may be made to make it safer.
Cities are the major contributors to economic growth, and movements in and between cities are crucial for improved quality of life. Road infrastructure improvement measures, like new road alignments, hierarchy of roads, provision of service roads (bypasses, ring roads, bus bays, wide medians, intersection improvements, construction and repair of footpaths and roads, removal of encroachments and good surface drainage) should also be introduced. Besides short- and medium-term measures, there is a need to have long-term ones as well, involving technology upgrades and introduction of high-speed, high-capacity public transport systems particularly along high-density traffic corridors.
Finally, there is a need to empower the urban local bodies to raise finances and coordinate the activities of various agencies involved in the provision of transport infrastructure. Mobility is not just about developing transport infrastructure and services; it is about overcoming social, economic, political and physical barriers to movement such as class, gender relations, poverty, physical disabilities and affordability.
Urban transport policies cannot succeed without the fullest cooperation of all the city residents. Such cooperation can be best secured if the objective of any initiative is made clearly known to them. It is, therefore, necessary to launch intensive awareness campaigns that educate people on the ill effects of the growing transport problems, especially on their health and wellbeing. There is need for a great variety of bus transport services in Indian cities. The BRT and mass transit systems are an example of shifting people out of their cars into mass transit to improve road conditions, mobility and public health. Even the rich, poor and people with physical disabilities will travel in BRT which will be an important change for sustainable urban mobility.
An urban transport strategy should also encourage the need for developing “green” modes such as bicycles, cycle rickshaws and pedestrians. First of all, the safety concerns of cyclists and pedestrians have to be addressed adequately. For this, there has to be a segregated right-of-way for bicycles and pedestrians.
Apart from improving safety, this will help improve traffic flow, increase the average speed of traffic, and reduce emissions resulting from low speeds and create an image for sustainable urban mobility and transport for all.