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Urban mobility problems can be solved through right diagnosis

One of the biggest problems faced by us in cities in India is the slow mobility and long hours of travel to and from place of work. With the ever increasing population, both human and vehicular, and space availability remaining constant, at times going down, the problem of urban mobility is growing day by day and there are no solutions in sight. Even the central part of Chicago, one of the most congested locations in the US, is generally faster than one of the fastest Indian cities, Chandigarh. India’s GDP can be increased by few percentage points just by improving urban mobility.

What’s even more interesting is the fact that urban mobility problem varies from city to city and also within the city from locality to locality. Also a point worth noting is the fact that problem of urban mobility is not restricted just to peak hours, that is, morning and evening hours but is being faced throughout the day. Slower urban mobility not only affects individual’s efficiency at work place but also influences adversely the overall efficiency of the economy.

We have not yet been able to find out whether the problem of urban mobility is the unavoidable evil of development or the latter is the solution to the problem itself. We have been the victim of this problem even after urban transportation being prioritized for massive investments year after year. As per the latest information available, transportation is the largest sector of lending by the World Bank and represents more than 20% of its net commitments. This has been the situation in all developing economies and that’s the only solace which we may have to be satisfied with at this juncture.

Among the many problems that these investments are trying to remedy, the lack of urban land devoted to the roadway is widely perceived to be a chief cause behind slow mobility and urban congestion. However, no one has done any precision analysis to find out how urban land availability affects urban mobility.

Speed of urban mobility is also affected by the state of the vehicle stock, driving culture and most importantly the quality of the road network. At times uncongested mobility problems are much more greater than generally perceived problem of congestion. Wrong diagnosis of the disease often aggravates the problem than leading to any solution. Therefore, before approaching the problem with conventional wisdom we need to study the mobility problems of  our cities afresh and also with open mind. Otherwise we will be simply shooting in the dark – wasting the public resources with no solutions in the sight. Therefore, there can be sizable potential gains from improving uncongested speed in urban India, and comparatively small gains from eliminating the deadweight loss from congestion.

In fact, studies have shown that congestion in India is not a nationwide problem, but rather is highly concentrated near the center of the largest Indian cities. Such problems need to be sorted out through location specific solutions.

Chandigarh hosts a population above a million, but unlike most Indian cities, it is a planned city characterized by a regular grid pattern laid out by the French architect Le Corbusier. It shows that lack of planning and haphazard growth is one of the reasons for the slow urban mobility.

Congestion may worsen with population growth but the experiences of developed economies show that this negative effect can be more than offset by better and faster roads and efficient mode of transportation. Therefore, conventional beliefs that typically claim that rapid urban population growth in India and other developing countries is necessarily associated with worse mobility may not be true if we plan our cities well.




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