The urban transportation conundrum

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Posted on:16-01-15

We curse the pollution, fret at the traffic jams, worry about the safety of our children, and rue the lack of reliable water and electricity supply, yet do not move out from our urban cages. The thought of moving to rural areas, or even smaller urban areas might cross our minds, but except for a few of us, we rarely make the actual move. Let’s face it; much as we might dislike living in cities, many of us, particularly those from the middle class, know that it is only here that we can surge ahead, in terms of wealth and career growth. While the pursuit of both might be questioned, from a practical standpoint, these are still prime drivers of ambition.

The quality of the environment in which we live and work in cities is entirely dependent upon the pattern of urban planning that we follow in India. As is the case with many fields, India was a pioneer in urban planning in ancient times. Travel to the remote ghost town of Dholavira, in Kutch district of Gujarat and you will see what I mean. A little jewel of an archaeological site, Dholavira exemplifies how neatly cities were built in the Indus valley civilization. The houses are laid out in a grid pattern and there is both running water and drainage to each house. Water supply is driven by gravity from a centrally placed well, located at the highest point on the land. 

A map showing the grid pattern of the settlements in Dholavira.

However, the history of our current practices in town planning - or at least the legal framework of it - is barely a century old. In the dying years of the nineteenth century, Ebenezer Howard, was consumed with how harmoniously the best of city and rural life could be combined. While in urban areas, people benefit from the social and economic opportunities, high wages and high productivity, they were imprisoned away from nature and suffered congestion and pollution. On the other hand, in rural areas, while the beauty of nature was in abundance, according to Howard, the lack of facilities resulted in relatively less economic activity. Howard thought up the idea of ‘garden cities’, where people could both experience the drive and verve of a city, while enjoying the beauty and therapeutic effects of nature. Town and country living would offer low rents, high wages, plenty of social opportunities and plenty to do, while at the same time giving people access to clean air, parks and fields and brighter homes and gardens. He therefore conceived of smaller suburban cities separated from large agglomerations such as London and from each other by green belts where no urban construction was allowed.

Central to Howard’s ideas of town and country living, were two notions. First, town and country living necessitated an efficient transportation network and the UK’s rapidly expanding railway system provided just that. Second, it presupposed that it was more efficient to partition cities into separate zones for living and working.

Howard’s ideas found expression in India’s urban planning grammar. India’s Town and Country Planning laws mirrored these ideas and cast them into its legal frameworks.

However, a century later, many of these ideas are implemented in the breach. Indeed, India’s widespread violation of its own legal frameworks for zoning, beg the question whether such approaches were good in the first place. Both the ideas of zoning and of transporting people to and fro from their residences to their work zones are being seriously questioned today.

I will explore the critiques of zoning and transportation in greater detail in my next blog.  

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