A frequently asked question is whether it is fair to expect people to reduce/stop using their own vehicles before public and non-motorized transport facilities improve. This question is asked by many who sincerely believe that the number of private motor vehicles on the road must be decreased.
Here is Parisar's position on the issue. This position is a little subtle - so read carefully!
We strictly never exhorts citizens to use public transport, ride a bicycle or walk. We never ask people not to use their own vehicles. Because we don’t think that this will work!
We understand that currently public transport has a huge demand but falls short on the supply side, both in quantity and in quality. This is quite different from cities in developed nations, where often good public transport goes unused.
Parisar instead believes that
People will choose a mode of transport based on several factors – convenience, reliability, comfort, safety and of course affordability. For a few “status” will also be a factor. Each of these weighs differently for different classes of commuters. For instance, school children whose parents obviously have a say in their choice, are actively discouraged from using a bicycle because of the safety factor. Workers, who are also a large cycling community, prefer cycling since it is cheap and flexible, but are less worried about safety. (Safety or lack thereof, is often a matter of perception).
Given a set of options people will choose based on this and clearly in Pune – given the options that exist – a large number of people use their own vehicles, both cars and two-wheelers. We do not question the wisdom of this choice at a personal level.
Since we recognize that the current situation is not sustainable and also has other serious ill-effects, we need to create a set of options so that people will prefer to use public transport, cycle or walk and avoid the use of their own vehicles.
This is accomplished in two ways
Have good public transport and make the city safe to cycle and pleasant to walk
Dis-incentivize the use of private vehicles
Some will say – don’t dis-incentivize before public transport is improved. However this doesn’t work for the following reasons
The more that you subsidise the use of private vehicles – directly or indirectly – the more difficult you make it to get people to switch to public transport. Subsidies to private vehicles include no or minimal restrictions on parking, free or cheap parking, roads that are widened as soon as they get congested, flyovers, removal of traffic signals, non-enforcement of rules such as helmets and seat belts, easily available driving licenses and so on. Essentially you make it easy to use a private vehicle, so not surprisingly people do!
Once you go down the path of – until public transport is fixed do what you can to make private vehicle use convenient – you are on a one way path making it more difficult to make a turn around. The city tends to invest more in infrastructure for vehicles, more people start using their own vehicles, less people use public transport, so politically it becomes expedient to favour the vehicle users and one gets a vicious circle.
One key factor to make public transport attractive it to give it its right of way. Local trains have that, BRT has it, Metro will too. That way one makes up for the inconvenience of having to walk to the access point, wait times, transfers etc by ensuring that you can cut through traffic and reach your destination on time! By contrast if using your own vehicle will only get you stuck in traffic, then people will willingly switch to public transport (like using locals in Mumbai). What this requires is for precious road space to be allocated to public transport and also to cyclists and pedestrians (cycle tracks and broad walkable footpaths!). Currently, since the priority is private vehicles, people and policy makers oppose dedicated lanes for buses and make narrow unusable cycle tracks and footpaths. Once again one has to cut spaces for private vehicles, be it parking spaces, lanes or even entire zones, just so that the others modes get a chance.
Getting people to use public transport is not easy! After all a car or a two-wheeler offers a lot of convenience. There is no need to adjust to a timetable, travel with strangers, one can carry stuff and often you can travel door to door with a vehicle. So unless one does both simultaneously – improve public transport and make the use of private vehicles difficult, inconvenient and expensive – this battle cannot be won.
So what role does Parisar play?
Parisar works to form public opinion about this issue and point out to various sections of society that it makes sense to invest more in public transport, less in infrastructure for private vehicles. It has pointed out that currently private vehicles enjoy various hidden subsidies and that public transport is given short shrift. We realize that changing public opinion is difficult and takes time; but ultimately this is what will get us to where we need to be.
When possible we try to influence policy by giving reasoned and fact based arguments so that bit by bit they favour public transport and focus on creating cycle and pedestrian friendly cities, rather than an auto-dominated one.
We use public policy, like the National Urban Transport Policy of the Govt. of India, the National Action Plan on Climate Change, directives of the JnNURM etc. which are pro public transport to push the local government to adopt the right set of policies and point out when they stray from it. Various norms on public transport published by reputed Government Institutes like CIRT (like the by now famous 50 buses per lakh population minimum) are used by us to support our demands for greater investments in public transport.
We argue with politicians and administrators that while lip service is paid to “sustainable transport” in fact very little is being done on the ground and that various individual policies (such as creating more parking spaces or building flyovers) have the very opposite effect.
We work with the agencies that provide public transport and help in whatever way we can to promote them and make their services better. Parisar helped in creating a website for PMPML and has been working to produce commuter friendly time tables.
We act as local watchdogs and report on the true ground realities to Central and State government and funding agencies like World Bank.
We were instrumental in pushing the PMC to set-up a dedicated Non-Motorized Transport Cell to address issues related to cycling and pedestrian safety and comfort. We have helped sensitize officers at various levels and conducted design workshops for contractors. We conduct site surveys and try to fix issues as they emerge.
We conduct public campaigns (like the pedestrian protest recently to highlight the issues faced by pedestrians at major intersections and then work with officials to fix the problems.
We oppose any move that simply caters to the needs of private vehicles at the expense of public transport users, cyclists and pedestrians, like the recent proposal for turning many streets into one-ways. We proposed a better solution that would smooth traffic flows while ensuring convenience of other commuters.
Does this work and to what extent?
We would like to think that we’ve made a difference. We know we have a very long way to go and we need to do much more. But every so often someone from another city comes to Pune and observes that things are better. We at least have cycle tracks; we have officials and even top politicians talking about the need for better pedestrian facilities. Even with its woeful implementation there is broad agreement about the concept of BRT; that it is needed and it needs to succeed. Unlike many other cities we (Parisar and other NGOs) are involved in planning and policy discussions. We have ensured our inputs make it into city policy documents.
NGOs like Parisar have to say what’s right and not pussyfoot around the issue. We can’t say – sure, we need better public transport, but we also need flyovers and river roads and hill roads and elevated roads. Those who do almost always end up pushing for the latter and remain silent when the former languishes. In principle everyone supports public transport and realizes its benefits, but no one will (for e.g.) actively oppose fare hikes (which clearly penalize the very people, who by using public transport do us all a favour!). We do!
We think Pune still stands a chance of remaining a pleasant city and not become a concrete jungle overrun with vehicles. We’re all going to have to work hard to push the right stuff and oppose the wrong things. But unlike some other cities in India, we have a window of opportunity.
If we don’t succeed in our efforts the future will be bleak. One by one we’ll lose our heritage, our green cover, our walking parks, our hills and our river (which one might say is already lost). The connection between transport and urban form is very strong. So it’s not about just fixing the traffic, it’s about what kind of a city we’ll end up with.