Come out and claim the road
Sunita Narain: Come out and claim the road
I write this column from my bed, recovering from an accident that broke my bones. I was hit by a speeding car while cycling. The driver fled the scene of the accident in the car, leaving me bleeding on the road. This is what happens again and again, in every city of our country, on every road - as we plan without care for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. These are the invisible users. They die doing nothing more than the most ordinary thing like crossing a road. I was more fortunate. Two cars stopped, and strangers helped me and took me to the hospital. I received treatment. I will be back, fighting fit.
And this is one battle that needs our combined attention. We cannot lose the space to walk and cycle. Since my accident, relatives and friends have berated me for being so reckless as to cycle on Delhi's roads. They are right. We have built city roads only for cars to move. Cars rule the road. There are no dedicated lanes for cycles; there are no sidewalks. The little stretches that do exist are either dirty or taken over by parked cars. Roads are for cars. The rest don't matter.
But cycling and walking are difficult not just because of poor planning. It is also because of the mindset that only those who move in a car have status and road rights. Anyone who walks or cycles is considered poor, wretched and destined to be marginalised, if not obliterated.
This is what must change. We have no option but to reinvent mobility, as I keep repeating. Toxic smog in Delhi recently reached a new peak. Last month, the World Health Organisation declared air pollutants a human carcinogen. We must realise that this pollution is not acceptable. It is killing us, and no longer softly or slowly. But if we are serious about combatting air pollution, we have no option but to think about restraining the growth of cars. Learn how to move people, not cars.
When the Centre for Science and Environment began its campaign against air pollution in the mid-1990s, it did everything conventional. It pushed to improve the quality of fuel; improve emission standards of vehicles; and to put the inspection and maintenance systems for checking tailpipe emissions in place. It also pushed a leapfrog solution: the transition to compressed natural gas (CNG) for grossly polluting vehicles such as diesel buses and two-stroke autorickshaws. That made a difference. There is no doubt that the quality of air would have been even worse, even more deadly, without these steps.
But this is not good enough. Pollution levels are rising again, inexorably and inevitably. All research points to one cause and one big solution: building transport systems differently. We also have the option of doing this. We still haven't motorised; nor have we built every flyover or four-lane road. Most importantly, much of India still takes the bus, walks or cycles - in many cites as much as 20 per cent of the population bikes. We do this because we are poor. Now the challenge is to reinvent city planning so that we can do this as we become rich.
For the past few years, this is exactly what we have been working on - how to bring back integrated and safe public transport options to our cites, so that even if we own a car, we don't have to drive it.
But the keyword is integration. We can build a metro or get new buses, but if we do not have last-mile connectivity, then it will still not work. It has to be seamless and effortless. This is why we need to think differently.
This is where we are failing. Today there is talk of transport, cycling and pedestrians' needs. But it is empty talk. Every time there is an attempt to convert a part of the road into a cycle track, the proposal is virulently opposed. The argument is that it cannot be done because it will take away space from cars and will add to congestion. But that is exactly what we need to do - reduce lanes for cars and add space for buses, cycles and pedestrians. This is the only way to get out of the ever-growing car bulge on roads.
This takes courage of conviction. On our overcrowded and chaotic roads, planning for cycle tracks and keeping sidewalks clean and clear will take lots of effort. I have absolutely no illusions that this will be easy to plan or to implement. But why should that deter us? The rest of the world has learnt successfully to rework road space so that it provides dignity and accessibility to cyclists and pedestrians. It has learnt to restrict space for cars and yet build extremely liveable cites.Just think of the double bonus: getting rid of the most noxious source of pollution will result in clean air; and having the option to get some exercise while commuting will mean healthy bodies.
This is what we have to fight for. And we will. I hope all of you will join us in making the right to cycle and walk with safety non-negotiable.
PS: To the strangers who took me to the hospital and to the extraordinary doctors at the AIIMS trauma centre who saved my life, thank you.