Moving urban India after the Covid-19 pandemic

By Ryan Christopher Sequeira

In the aftermath of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, India is likely to experience a behavioral change in urban mobility. Due to lasting concerns about transmission and a newfound aptitude for working from home, we must expect an overall reduced demand and an increased preference for personal modes of transport.

Unhindered, there is a high likelihood that there would be a permanent modal shift towards automobiles that would spatially and environmentally overload our cities and substantively impact our quality of life. Consequentially, this would threaten the financial viability of transit operators, especially those already stretched thin before the hit in ridership, and will further tilt the scales away from an optimal urban transportation landscape.

On the other hand, this crisis also presents an opportunity to guide the recovery of urban transport towards long-term development goals.

But where should we focus our energy and resources to have long-lasting and positive change while providing the most bang for our buck?

First, direct efforts towards accessibility instead of only mobility. While mobility focuses on movement of people and goods and the distances they cover, accessibility emphasizes the ability of people to obtain the same goods, services, and activities without necessarily having to move, or at least move as much.

Accessibility necessitates rethinking our cities to optimally integrate transportation with land uses to increase proximity, connectivity, and convenience.

Second, facilitate the increased demand for personal modes through non-motorized modes, not just cars and two-wheelers. According to a United Nations Environment Program report in 2014, even in a large city like Delhi, 48% of trips were less than two kilometres (km) and another 14% were between two and four kms. The high frequency of short distance commutes shows that alternative modes are easily manageable and feasible to adopt.

Kolkata has already taken the lead to cater to the recent increase in demand for cycling by permitting bicyclists to cut through neighborhood lanes, thereby reducing their travel distance.

In addition to such policies that prioritise non-motorised modes, infrastructure such as designated spaces, routes and crossings to promote safety, bike-share systems to promote availability, and water fountains, wash facilities, and trees to promote user comfort are essential to make active modes more widespread than only the current captive users.

Third, integrate pricing of all modes of transport, private and public, to ensure continuity of public operators of transport in the context of reduced transit demand.

With such measures, we will be able to moderate the demand for the private automobile, adequately increase transit supply, allow for social distancing, and cater to the long under-invested transportation infrastructure of our cities.

(The opinion piece appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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