Sustainable public transport can ensure a safe future

Sustainable public transport can ensure a safe future

It should be nothing less than a national disgrace that even VIPs are not spared from fatal accidents on unsafe roads in India.

Death of Union minister Gopinath Munde in a road accident on an avenue in Lutyen’s Delhi is not an exception. Let us be reminded that even a former President of India Giani Zail Singh died due to injuries sustained in a road accident in Punjab. Former Union minister Eduardo Faleiro lost his wife and himself sustained grievous injuries at precisely the same spot in Delhi where Munde was killed by a rashly driven taxi. The long list of road deaths includes names of former minister Rajesh Pilot and eldest son of Bal Thackeray.

These horrendous vignettes from the recent past must set our urban planners thinking. The chaos that characterises our cities is reflective of the thoughtless and relentless pace of urbanisation gripping India. Indians bought 15 million vehicles last year by shelling out Rs 3.50 lakh crore. The outgo from the national exchequer on construction of roads last year was Rs 75,000 crore. Another Rs 7-8 lakh crore were spent by people on fuel to run the vehicles they possessed. Altogether the transport sector expenditure was of the order of Rs 12 lakh crore. But look at the inter-sectoral expenditure. The construction of roads claimed the least among them all. In other words, roads and highways are bound to become unsafe as they get crammed with more and more vehicles.

We need to assess what this expenditure is moving, cars or people, and at what cost. Is the chaos on roads not of our own making? Are we not rendering our roads totally unsafe for users? We need to introspect as to what kind of behaviour is being incentivised and what kind is being punished.

Around 140,000 lives were lost due to fatal road accidents in 2012 across the country. According to the WHO, the injuries sustained in road accidents are the sixth leading cause of death in India with a greater share of hospitalisation, deaths, disabilities and socio-economic losses in the young and middle-aged population. More people are injured, maimed or disabled for life due to injuries than those are killed. For instance, in 2011, while 1.21 lakh people were killed in road accidents, 5.11 lakh were injured. It is only when some VIP dies in a road accident that the severity of the issue bursts forth upon the national consciousness.

When economy does well, people tend to travel more. But it is for urban planners to think of shaping the choice of people’s mode of travel. Complete liberty of choice, unhindered by state intervention, is all likely to make the transport scene chaotic which it has become. Buying of vehicle may be an individual choice, but providing roads and access to places have a role for the state. It is where perhaps people need to restrain their choice. Buying a vehicle is certainly not like bringing home a washing machine or fridge. It has social repercussions like congested thoroughfares, pollution, accidents, fatalities, encroachments on public space by parking of private vehicles et al.

Bangalore’s case

Take the case of Bangalore. The city’s population is nearing ten million. Vehicle population is around half of that. A family having three vehicles is termed progressive but people look askance at a family having three kids. An individual walking on a road barely takes about a square metre of space. But a privately owned car takes 24 square metres of space. The city has 13,000 km of road network. But according to P N Srinivasachari, principal secretary for transport, Karnataka, 30 per cent of the road space goes for parking. If during the space of a day an individual parks his car at three public places, he occupies around 70 sq metres of public space. One could question if we can afford this luxury when constricted roads are causing the fatalities to spiral.

It is where we see serious imbalance leading to the present crisis on roads. J P Gupta, commissioner of public transport, Gujarat, says the way private transport is occupying public space makes a worrying picture. Peter Newman, director, Curtin University Sustainability Policy (CUSP) Institute, Perth, Australia who was here recently to speak at a conference on sustainable transport, said: “Most cities are facing death sentences in India. Cities that were built around cars no longer function. The poor are getting out farther and farther. Politics somehow revolves round cars, and it is very robust in nature.” A staunch advocate of public transport, notably light rail, Newman says, “A tram carries 275 people, five buses also carry the same volume of passengers but it take 175 cars to take that many people to work.”

Dario Hidalgo, the world renowned architect of public transport who designed the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) in cities of Bogota and Curitiba (both in Colombia), and director, centre for sustainable transport at World Resources Institute (WRI), advocating high class public transport in urban area, says, “Indian cities are struggling; a successful city is one where people feel encouraged to walk or go biking. A transport system must maintain social equilibrium, it should be economically sustainable and should leave least environmental footprint.”

If indeed Indians intend to step into a safe future, they would require to primarily sacrifice their sense of vanity associated with private vehicles. As for the state, it needs to fill the gap by providing safe, dependable and sustainable public transport. 

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