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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Trapped in the abode of clouds

In the two years of the pandemic, lockdowns, odd-and-even rules and the simple fear of contracting COVID-19 had emptied streets and roads. Pedestrians could finally walk, even if on the same broken roads and uneven footpaths. Now that the city's gears are back in motion, the cars have returned, seemingly with a vengeance. How long can we sustain a home sacrificed to a metallic monster?

By Jayasmita Bhattacharjee | SHILLONG:

In the second part of The Urbanist, Jayasmita Bhattacharjee decodes the failed urbanism of Shillong by looking at the traffic that clogs the city. In the two years of the pandemic, lockdowns, odd-and-even rules and the simple fear of contracting COVID-19 had emptied streets and roads. Pedestrians could finally walk, even if on the same broken roads and uneven footpaths. Now that the city’s gears are back in motion, the cars have returned, seemingly with a vengeance. How long can we sustain a home sacrificed to a metallic monster?

Traffic. There is not much to write about the problems faced by the populace due to this everyday nuisance; it is a matter that all residents are intimately familiar with. To cover a distance of 3 kilometres, we might spend an average of 50 minutes, and this tragedy is only worsening every day. Now that both schools and colleges are reopening with the pandemic slowly coming to an end, the inconveniences on the road are manifold.

The number of cars on the road is increasing at an expeditious rate, whilst there is no possible way to increase the size of the roads. Not only the number of cars, but even their sizes are increasing, as people look to match their status to the vehicles parked in their driveway. Most of the secondary and tertiary roads of the city do not have enough turning radius to manoeuvre these big cars; couple that with two lanes in that narrow stretch and we are stuck in a jam for hours. If there is at all enough space for two cars to pass by each other comfortably, it is often taken up by reckless car- owners who choose to use the “excess” space to park their cars; if these are in a residential area, then the dorbar shnong must swing into action to identify the culprit and clear roadblocks. Thus, no matter how much space is available, there is no relief from congestion.

Shillong was built for a population of a few thousand; its growth has been organic like most hill cities, but the capital cities more effort than letting the terrain decide its fate.

Shillong has also always played an important administrative role. Even before the statehood of Meghalaya, it was the capital of the larger Assam; once Meghalaya became an independent state, Shillong became its primate city; hence, its growth should have been anticipated and planned.

Today, Shillong is so compact and saturated that there are hardly breathing spaces in the core city; most of the roads lack a decent footpath. Even if there are, many prefer to walk on the road because of the effort to climb up and down the uneven footpath. In defence of pedestrians, the city lacks a decent urban design of streets, streetscape and ease of accessing the few available infrastructures. It is hard to say if its leaders, planners and policymakers truly did not anticipate Shillong’s sudden economic prosperity and the transhumance of people from rural areas, and other states, to Shillong; but the lack of timely intervention is now choking the city.

What is the solution to this inescapable problem? There are many problems, but are the solutions at this stage really that simple? Clearly, as we have seen in Shillong and cities around the world, building flyovers and creating more road space are not viable solutions.

First, the roads of Shillong do not have enough width to allow two lanes and the pillars that support a fly-over to exist at the same time and side-by-side; one reason for this is the resulting congestion in a small city and the nature of the terrain itself.

Second, in terms of sustainability, more roads only mean giving access to more cars. Indeed, studies have repeatedly shown that creating more road space only nudges more and new cars on the road. If bigger roads and fly-overs are planned for the next ten years, then in the eleventh year, the city will start choking again. Thus, to build a city for cars means to edge out spaces for people to exist without cars. What will result is a vicious cycle of smoke and fire that keeps good urbanism outside its choking hold. Realistically, Shillong can never satisfy the vehicular craze devouring it now.

The most effective, but also the most difficult, the solution is to tackle congestion at its source: get rid of cars and build mass public transportation. It is the only way towards a sustainable and clean living environment. Cities like Milan, Spain; Bogotá, Colombia; Paris, France; and Oslo, Norway are all on a warpath against cars.

India, in general, has followed the planning and development trends of North American countries, which are dependent on highways and motors. The “American Dream” of car ownership has penetrated too deep within the Indian soil, and, now, travelling by personal cars or cabs has become the most preferred option, even if the most destructive. Instead, we have completely ignored the development pattern of European societies, which have designed their streets for people than cars and prioritised a strong public transport system to connect the important nodes of the cities. They have also propagated the use of cycles and skates and created smart installations and greenery, whilst establishing business infrastructure by the sides of streets to incentivise walking. Many cities have adopted measures like the electronic road pricing system wherein an electronic toll is levied on vehicles according to time and congestion levels, thereby making owning cars more expensive. There are myriad ways of reducing road congestion through policy that does not break under the will of militant car-owners. Inspirations should now be taken from places fighting cars, or, even better, we must find our own contextual solutions to our local problems.

Public transport needs a complete transformation, and not simply a numerical increase in buses and taxis. A multi-modal transport needs to be well connected and integrated; last-mile connectivity needs to be improved, and, most importantly, fares should be revised.   Under the current infrastructure, people spend much more time, money and/or effort commuting by public transport, which further makes car ownership and uses enticing.

The entire model of public transport requires transformation. The planners and the administrative institutions of Shillong should focus on creating a durable transportation system with cheaper fares, faster connectivity and easy accessibility, and only then encourage the people to take up public transport as much as possible. Schools, which are often on highways, should provide bus services and not allow cars to clog roads. Other than public transport, the economic, environmental and health benefits of cycling should also be promoted. Kudos to the few individuals of Shillong who have taken up cycling as their main mode of travel, despite the people’s antipathy to and violence towards cyclists. A lack of safe cycling lanes has made it incredibly difficult and dangerous to share the road space with fast-moving motor vehicles traversing lawlessly through the city. Shillong also has a large walking population, so a better walking ambience should be provided for them. Through good urban design, a behavioural change can be brought about and more people can be nudged to walk.

There are many ways to reduce the number of cars on the road and we each play a significant role in this. It is to be understood that we have to think beyond increasing the road space because it is a luxury our city cannot afford in terms of land; more importantly, cars are simply not part of sustainable development. Thus, we must take a step back and change our way of living by reducing our dependencies on cars and making an intelligent choice about how we want Shillong to function.

(The writer is an urban planner in Shillong)

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