COVID-19 | Towards ‘new normal’ of thinner traffic and cleaner air
It is important to focus on sustainability and quality of life through focused transport planning and policy
Before we look at the changes that the pandemic has brought about, it is important to look back on the transportation system in Indian cities, including Bengaluru, pre-COVID-19.
In all the metropolises and most of the tier-II cities, we were facing extreme growth in vehicular traffic — both in number of vehicles and kilometres travelled — and congestion. Traffic accidents and fatalities, especially among vulnerable road users like pedestrians and two-wheeler riders were also high and growing. We were also recording other growing externalities connected to mobility in terms of higher levels of exhaust emissions including carbon, noise pollution, and increased fuel consumption. The sum effect of all these was degrading Quality of Life (QoL).
During the lockdown period, however, many Indian cities experienced tangible glimpses of improvements in QoL when traffic was negligible and pollution levels fell much below the permissible limits.
Now that the cities are inching towards normalcy, the larger question is whether we make these QoL improvements as the new normal, which can happen only when lessons are learnt from this pandemic and specific interventions are introduced.
While public transport systems need to maintain social distancing temporarily, can we translate it into comfortable seating and standing? Likewise, can we translate the need for contactless travel in mass transit systems to seamless and contactless travel experience in multi-modal forms of transport?
It is important to focus on sustainability and QoL through focused transport planning and policy as a permanent new normal. I have listed some core principles that need to be followed to achieve this.
Reduce the need to travel: This can include interventions like work from home on some days, staggered and flexible work hours, and more online shopping and home delivery opportunities.
Reduce distances: Here, interventions like mix land use policy and planning, translating “vocal for local” concepts in terms of living closer to where you work or study can be introduced.
Infrastructure for sustainable modes: This will include interventions like priority lanes for bus and cycle lanes, wider and good surface quality footpaths, and a more robust metro and suburban rail network.
Right-of-way allocation: The priority should be in the order of non-motorised transport (NMT), public transport (PT), and in the last personal mobility modes.
Monitoring pollution levels: It is important that all types of high polluting and high space occupying vehicles per unit of person carried are discouraged. This will include interventions like congestion charging, odd-even rule, parking policies and pedestrianising busy streets. Cleaner vehicle technology and fuel for all vehicle categories should be promoted.
Of course, no more flyovers/ underpasses/ elevated corridors in the city as they do not satisfy any of the above-mentioned principles. It will be a pity if we don’t learn our lessons even from such a pandemic.
And finally, a good transport policy must ensure equal access across gender, income groups, differently-abled people; improve disaster resiliency of transport system etc.
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 the next two years.
The very first action plan listed under this objective is the taking up of 190 km of 12 high-density corridors. While we need to see more details, it almost seems like re-packaging of infamous and ill-conceived elevated corridor and steel flyover projects, making it clear that we haven’t still learned the right lessons from the ongoing pandemic. Ironically, other than this item, no specific targets were set for public transport, walking, and cycling.
On the brighter side, the ongoing ‘Church Street First’ pilot for five months, where vehicular traffic is banned on weekends is a good example of promoting sustainable mobility and quality of life. Such initiatives should be scaled up. The scaling up of bicycle and bus lanes are also noteworthy and need to be taken up. Other cities in Karnataka can do even better than Bengaluru by retaining their current higher mode share of walking and cycling and improving public transport. From a long-term planning perspective, carrying out an “Integrated Land Use & Transport Plan Study” jointly by BDA and DULT is an ideal way forward.
This will go a long way in ensuring a long-term vision and action plan for a sustainable and liveable Bengaluru.
(Prof. Dr. Ashish Verma is an Associate Professor & Convenor, IISc Sustainable Transportation Lab. (IST Lab.) at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru)