Sanjeev Sanyal, economist, author and Member, Committee on the Future Economy, Government of Singapore, explains that not all urban hubs may have the wherewithal or capacity to sustain a public transport system such as the Metro railway.
How intrinsic is an effective Mass Rapid Transport System to the soul of a ´smart urban hub?´
Let me clarify that the term ´Smart City´ does not denote scale. We can have small Smart Cities and large Smart Cities, both successful. The Mass Rapid Transport System or MRTS is really meant for large cities which have the population and economic density to sustain such expensive infrastructure. In a small city or town, it may be good enough to combine traditional public transport with walking and cycling. In fact, ´slow´ transport systems like trams may be more sensible for smaller urban hubs. There is the very interesting case of Portland, Oregon, that deliberately slowed down public transport in the city centre in order to give it a ´soul´. In very large urban agglomerations, however, the MRTS becomes a key backbone infrastructure to keep people moving through a large and complex landscape. It not only frees up road space, but also allows urban designers to create clusters of economic, cultural and social activity, provide easy access to urban amenities and, very importantly, create a more democratic culture for the city.
You have often remarked that the single-minded pursuit of static optimisation can result in failure of a modern city by making it less adaptable to ever-developing new economic, social and technological contexts. Can a similar fate also befall a public transport system such as the Metro rail?
The smartness of a city should not be judged by how many new technologies it adopts at a point in time, but its ability to keep absorbing innovations and change over time. Technologies keep changing and there is always a risk that a backbone technology will become outdated. This is what happened to fixed line telephony when it was surpassed by mobile networks. So, it is always possible that the Metro rail systems may be bypassed by some new technology.
Say, some unexpected application of driverless cars. Given large sunk costs and the fixed network, MRTS would struggle to adapt. Nonetheless, as things stand, Metro rail systems have been found to be a very useful ingredient in the transportation mix of virtually every large city where they have been built. As long as city governments avoid white elephants like Shanghai´s Maglev, Metro rail remains a viable option for large cities. For smaller cities, it may be better to opt for cheaper and more flexible transportation systems.
You also say that walking the first and the last mile is the backbone of any public transport infrastructure. Please elaborate.
One of the biggest flaws in transportation planning in India is the total disregard for walkability. People end up taking a car to even visit the neighbourhood market because walking is so unpleasant. This is sad because the first and last mile of every public transport journey must be walked. This is not just about creating footpaths, but also the wider infrastructure of pedestrian crossings, lighting, security, street-level retail, shade and so on. The lack of this pedestrian infrastructure is a major reason why the public transport experience in the country is so poor. You can take a brand-new Metro line to a destination but then spend a lot of time haggling with an auto-rickshaw for the last mile. This needs to change.
Since a rider´s office or place of residence might be at considerable distance from the train station in a modern Indian city, is the idea feasible here?
For very long distances, taxis and rickshaws will still be needed, but anything within 0.5 kilometre (or even one kilometre) should be easily walkable. People around the world routinely walk these distances. The problem is that Indians are forced to hire last-mile transportation because of the poor pedestrian infrastructure. Incidentally, weather has little impact on this. Almost every city I have studied complains that its weather is uniquely bad for walking - some say it is too hot, others too cold, still others claim that it rains too often. Walking systems can be designed to allow for this so that´s not an excuse.
What makes you perceive government commissioned reports seeking to improve urban infrastructure in India as mere laundry lists? How in your opinion can they instead be turned into usable strategic documents?
You have hit the nail on the head; government commissioned reports in India almost always consist of whatever the experts and bureaucrats of the time feel is a ´safe´ laundry list. However, infrastructure design is a strategic tool that has long lasting impact on the way the city evolves. It needs to take into account the existing urban landscape and find ways to allow evolution into the future. Rather than a laundry list, an infrastructure plan should be based on a vision of where the city will go in the future. This requires both political and intellectual leadership.
How can a transport system such as the Metro rail reflect the culture of its people and their varied social and economic interactions?
As they say, a developed city is not one where the poor drive cars but the rich use public transport. In fact, I have found that the public transport network makes a city more egalitarian irrespective of income inequality. Cities like London, New York and Mumbai suffer great inequalities of income and wealth but, on the street, these cities feel egalitarian. This is because a wide range of the cities´ citizens interact and rub shoulders in their trains. The shared experience creates unsaid bonds of empathy that are important for a city. The same cannot be said of a city where the rich use cars while the poor make do with whatever inadequate service is available. This causes fundamental social divides.
How can public transport facilities such as train stations be used to achieve that goal?
Train and bus stations are important public spaces where people interact in a variety of ways. In addition to providing transportation links, they are places where citizens linger for many reasons - waiting for a friend, pulling out money from an ATM, catching a quick coffee, buying snacks or reading a newspaper. They are places where ´regulars´ will quietly acknowledge each other or strike up a friendship, where one many bump into an old acquaintance or overhear an interesting conversation. In short, they are the essence of urban life and virtually every citizen has access to it. This is why cities must invest in train, Metro and bus stations. What would London be without Paddington or Victoria, Mumbai without CST and New York without Grand Central?