One of the most ubiquitous problems faced by any urban resident these days is “traffic”. This single word encompasses the trials and tribulations faced by a wide variety of commuters; from the humble pedestrian to the chauffeur-driven businessman or politician. In that sense traffic is an equaliser – it spares no one. Of course those who are better off usually have more choices and more money to spare, whereas the vast majority has no option but to endure the grind of their daily commute using the mode they can afford – the crowded city bus, the rickety six-seaters, the hazardous cycle ride or the terribly inconvenient walk.
As we strive to address these issues, we begin to imagine that ideal “world class” city that we ought to emulate. Amongst other urban issues, this would be a city where “traffic” would no longer be a problem. Such visions are offered to us by cities like Shanghai and Dubai. We see the iconic buildings that signify these cities, the enormous roads, the futuristic looking Metros and it makes for an enticing vision.
This is when we need to step back and ask ourselves: Is this really the kind of city we would want to live in?
A city is meant for us to live in with our fellow human beings, to socialise, to innovate, to share interests – business and otherwise, to collaborate and cooperate, to protest, to learn and teach, to meet and sometimes – to stand back and enjoy a moment of solitude. If it was otherwise, we wouldn’t want to live cheek by jowl with others in these dense knots of people we call cities. Yes, in India people migrate to cities because the situation is less than ideal in the villages, but young people the world over come to cities, not just for jobs, but for all the other things a city has to offer – its diversity, its cultural richness and seemingly endless opportunities. But in order for this social function to be met, we need a city with the appropriate form. A city has to enable people to interact and to move at speeds which allow these interactions to happen. It has to provide the spaces for social interactions. This happens when a city is at a “human scale”.
Indian cities, for all their chaos are still at this “human scale”. Is there an improved version of such a city? European cities provide a better “model”; these cities too are dense, compact and maintain their unique identity. But they’ve managed to straighten out their mess and bring about a certain order to the situation.
American cities, on the other hand, are vast and sprawling. Low density suburbs make human interactions difficult. The automobile becomes the only viable mode of transport. In doing so, it further cuts off people from their neighbourhoods. Children can’t just run across to their friends’ place; they need to be driven. The city takes on a form that needs to meet the insatiable needs of the automobile. At a car ownership level of 800 per thousand persons, it becomes the dominant feature of the city. It is a philosophical choice, Americans have made theirs (although now it seems they are reconsidering!), and we have to make ours.
The main feature of the “human scale” city is the focus on people. Not the automobile. You create spaces for people, not for cars. You try and move people, not the cars they sit in. This simple mantra fundamentally changes the way you plan and make choices in the city. You are no longer intimidated by the crowd and the fact that it slows down your car. Instead, you find ways to commute without your car – walk, cycle or use a public mode of transport. And in doing so, you not just solve the problem of the car commuter, but you also solve the problem of every single commuter in the city. This is because fundamentally the car is an extremely inefficient mode of transport; not only does it consume petrol, and create noise and air pollution but it also hogs an inordinate amount of space; space on the roads when it travels and space both on and off the roads when it stands still – parked, which happens to be most of the time! So taking out the car (or severely limiting it), suddenly opens up a whole lot of space – for all the things we humans like to do – sit and eat, meet other people, play, or go for a walk.