By Dr. Ubaid Illahi
WHILE everyone these days talks about the Srinagar Smart City Project, most of the conversations I have had are negative, especially related to the transportation infrastructure. Although the Smart City mission covers a broad spectrum of issues, in this article, I will confine my arguments and discussion to transportation alone.
Cars are amazing but traffic is a mess! Right? Can infrastructure like more roads, widened roads, flyovers, underpasses, and multilevel parking solve all these issues?
To understand this from a scientific perspective, we need to understand the game between demand and supply. Here, demand refers to the growth of vehicles (cars) and supply refers to all the infrastructure that cars need from parking spaces to road width to intersection designs and so on. If we can maintain optimality between these two, the problem is resolved. But the issue is that car growth is exponential and providing infrastructure at a similar pace is not possible. Let me quote a silly example so that we can understand it better. No matter how big your house is, it has a capacity. What if you flood it with stuff at an exponential pace? Very soon, you will have to either expand the house or think of a new one. Let us assume you even have all the resources to do that. But is it sustainable? Certainly not! What it means is that providing car infrastructure is only an expensive short-term solution to traffic congestion, leaving other issues aside.
Are these problems new? Are there any options that would move more people while occupying less road space and being sustainable?
In recent years, Srinagar has been witnessing some serious traffic-related problems, with congestion being at the top of the list. The good news is that these problems are not new to the world. Owing to the growth of cities and urbanization, countries in the west have already faced it two to three decades back. As more and more people began driving cars, roads became crowded and traffic jams became more common. Traffic congestion is horrible as it not only wastes a huge amount of time, fuel and money but also leads to increased air pollution, frustration, and reduced productivity. All these issues have serious health consequences, including respiratory, cardiac, and even psychiatric problems.
Transportation researchers have come to the consensus that traffic-related problems are primarily due to car-oriented policies. Car-oriented policies prioritize the need of cars over other modes of transportation and the need of the community as a whole. These policies often prioritize the construction of highways, flyovers, the availability of parking, and the convenience of driving cars over the development of public transportation, walking, and cycling infrastructure. Researchers have concluded that people-oriented policies that prioritize the needs of the community holistically, focussing on accessibility, safety, and environmental sustainability is what can save us from massive adverse impacts of traffic. It does not mean banning cars right away. What it means is that cars cannot be the only mode of transport given sheer importance. Other modes need equitable road space, if not more. In fact, the modes that are less polluting and environment friendly should be given preference.
What did they (the West) do about it?
Having faced these pressing issues, following are some of the examples that reflect their (West) course of action:
1) Amsterdam (Netherlands) has long been a leader in promoting cycling as a primary mode of transportation. The city has invested in extensive cycling infrastructure, including dedicated bike lanes, bike parking facilities, and traffic signals that prioritize cyclists. As a result, cycling now accounts for over 60% of all trips within the city.
2) Copenhagen (Denmark) has also prioritized cycling as a primary mode of transportation. The city has invested heavily in cycling infrastructure, including a network of bike lanes and bicycle tracks, and has implemented traffic-calming measures to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians. These efforts have resulted in cycling accounting for over 50% of all trips within the city.
3) Bogota (Colombia) is known for its extensive public transportation system, including a rapid bus transit system called TransMilenio. The city has also implemented a number of measures to reduce car use, including car-free days, pedestrian-only zones, and a bike-sharing system called Ciclovia. These efforts have helped to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution within the city.
4) Barcelona (Spain) has implemented a number of policies to reduce car use and promote sustainable transportation options. The city has introduced a bike-sharing system, expanded pedestrian zones, and implemented traffic-calming measures to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians. Barcelona has also introduced a “superblock” model, which involves closing off several city blocks to through traffic and prioritizing public space for pedestrians and cyclists.
What’s more, a study of over 18,000 commuters in the UK found that cycling to work was associated with lower levels of stress and greater feelings of well-being compared to driving cars. Regular cycling has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and premature death. In fact, a study of over 260,000 participants in the UK found that regular cycling was associated with a 41% lower risk of premature death than non-cyclists. Additionally, outdoor cycling has been found to improve overall well-being, happiness, and enjoyment more than indoor cycling or other forms of exercise, according to a study of over 1,000 adults in the US. Research papers are flooded with many such examples. It would be unfair not to mention here a famous quote by H.G. Wells:
“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
These are few examples signifying how cities can reform their policies to prioritize sustainable transportation options and reduce the dominance of cars. But why did their policies suppress car dominance? Research has proved that by investing in public transportation, cycling infrastructure, and pedestrian-friendly streets, these cities have been able to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions while improving the quality of life for their residents. While you are reading this, I am sure you must be thinking of weather, distance, and social symbols. Of course, cycling is not for commuting longer distances and who would prefer it in rain and snow! But how often does it rain and snow across the year in Srinagar? Do you have similar thoughts on motorbikes? The weather being a deterrent to cycling is only true for a very small period considering the climate of Srinagar, in particular. The only deterrent remains the social symbol associated with it. Being a researcher myself, I strongly believe that if government officers, educational institutions and sports fraternity lead this movement of green mobility in the city, it will have an amazing impact on the behaviour and attitudes of the public. I conclude this article by leaving some questions for you to ponder. They (the West) have understood and acknowledged it. When will we? Can we learn from them? Can we leapfrog or repeat those mistakes? The answers to these questions will decide what future we are looking for in the people and city of so-called paradise!
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
- Dr. Ubaid Illahi holds a Ph.D. in Transportation Engineering & Planning from NIT Srinagar and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
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