Sustainability and Quality of Life (QoL) should be the goals for Transport Planning and Policy in Post COVID-19 World
Prof. Dr. Ashish Verma
Associate Professor, Transportation Systems Engineering
Convenor, IISc Sustainable Transportation Lab. (IST Lab.)
Dept. of Civil Engg., Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru
Before we look into ‘post’ COVID-19 world, it is important to look back and take a recap of how transportation system was in ‘pre’ COVID-19 in Indian cities, including Bengaluru. In all the metropolitan cities and most of the tier-II Indian cities, we were facing extreme growth in vehicular traffic (both in terms of number of vehicles and vehicle kilometers travelled (VKT)) and congestion on city roads; traffic accidents and fatalities, especially of vulnerable road users (VRUs) like pedestrian, two-wheeler riders, and cyclists, were also high and growing; we were experiencing other growing externalities connected to mobility, in terms of higher levels of exhaust emissions including carbon, higher traffic related noise, higher petrol and diesel consumption; and the sum effect of all these was degrading Quality of Life (QoL) of people living in these cities. However, on positive side, many Indian cities experienced tangible glimpse of improvements in QoL during the lockdown period when the traffic was negligible and pollution levels came down drastically and much below the permissible limits (as per CPCB data, by mid-April 2020 the PM2.5 concentration in Bengaluru was below 40 µg/m3, while the Indian acceptable standard is 60 µg/m3). Now that the cities are inching close to normalcy with easing of most of the COVID-19 related restrictions, the larger question is that can we make these QoL improvements as new normal and will that be temporary or permanent? Temporarily yes, as long as the Corona Virus is around us, however it can become permanent only if lessons are learnt from this pandemic and specific interventions are introduced to make it a new normal permanently. While public transport (PT) needs to maintain social distancing temporarily, can we translate it into comfortable seating and standing in PT permanently; likewise, can we translate need for contactless travel in PT temporarily to seamless and contactless travel experience in multi-modal PT permanently. It is therefore important to focus on a sustainability and QoL, through focused transport planning and policy as a permanent new normal; and in order to conceive and achieve this new normal I am laying down the core principles that need to be followed for transportation policy and planning in Indian cities:-
Off course, no more flyovers/underpasses/elevated corridors in the city, as they do not satisfy any of the above-mentioned core principles of achieving sustainable mobility and higher QoL in Indian cities. It will be a pity if we don’t learn our lessons even from such a pandemic. In the light of the above points, it was interesting to note the release of “Bengaluru Mission 2022” document with an ambitious target to make Bengaluru world class in next two years. While the core objectives of this mission are well laid, the detailing of the action plan, at least on the aspect of enabling faster commute, requires more diligence. The very first action plan listed under this objective is about taking-up 190 kms of 12 high density corridors in mission mode with KRDCL. While we need to see more details, it almost seems like re-packaging of infamous and ill-conceived Elevated Road Corridor/ Steel Flyover projects, making it clear that we haven’t still learned right lessons from the ongoing pandemic, and with such action plans in place the goal of making commute faster in Bengaluru will remain as a distant dream only. Ironically, other than this item, no specific targets, of next two years, were set for public transport, walking, and cycling. Also, there was no action plan mentioned on measures to dis-incentivize usage of personal mobility modes. However, on brighter side, the ongoing “Church Street First” pilot for 5 months, implemented by Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) together with IISc Sustainable Transportation Lab. (IST Lab), and Catapult, UK, where the whole street is made vehicle free and clean air zone, is a good example of promoting sustainable mobility and higher Quality of Life (QoL), and such initiatives should be scaled up in other parts of Bengaluru on other busy streets as well. Similar efforts on scaling bicycle lanes and bus lanes in Bengaluru are also note worthy and need to be taken up in mission mode in next two years. The other tier-II cities in Karnataka can do even better than Bengaluru by retaining their current higher mode share of walking and cycling and improving the mode share of public transport, by following the core principles listed above.
Further, while the Government of Karnataka has decided to carry out a fresh Master Plan study through Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), it is also important to give it a fresh and holistic approach and methodology. Instead of following the traditional practice of separate land use master plan study and separate comprehensive mobility plan study, where the two plans typically never marry with each other with little or no collaboration between urban/town planners and transportation planners, the government should rather take up an “Integrated Land use and Transportation Plan Study” to be done jointly by BDA and DULT. Also, this should follow a good combination of top down approach (clearly laid goals and measurable indicators) and bottom up approach (taking account of the ground level problems) with structured stakeholder consultation embedded in every important stage of preparing the integrated plan. This will go a long way in ensuring a long-term vision and action plan for a sustainable and liveable Bengaluru.