India Together: A new law needed for active mobility

India Together: A new law needed for active mobility

GS paper 4

We cannot build a city for athletic young people and motor vehicles alone. Affirmative action for non-motorised transport is needed to set a clear course for an inclusive and practical imagination of our cities, writes Sathya Sankaran.

01 March 2021

We know very well that the transportation choices we have made over many decades, and are continuing to make, have caused pollution and congestion in our cities. Air pollution caused by fossil fuel vehicles is a major contributor to deaths and impairments in adults and children. We cannot be tolerant of avoidable deaths, and this is something we readily acknowledge to each other, but it’s not apparent from our choices.

When valuable commons like the streets are hijacked by powerful and highly inefficient modes that only a small segment of the population can afford, we inevitably get congestion. As those in private motor vehicles hog public space, they exclude a set of people who need to walk, cycle or take public transport. These are costs imposed by a certain section of population on others – a classic failure of the principles of equity that hold our society together.

What does this equity mean, and how does this look to you and me? You can open the gate to your house or community, and confidently drive out on an asphalted road in a motor vehicle. However, the same is not true for walking and cycling. You would think several times before opening your gate and starting to walk or cycle; the feeling that you’re not safe is immediate and powerful. Even those who accept that risk often do not allow their kids or elders or the differently abled to do the same. This is the manifestation of inequity for you and me.

We cannot build a city for athletic young people or for motor vehicles alone. A city must bring mobility to all people, regardless of economic status, age, gender or abilities. This is what every city across the globe is striving to build – a place that respects people and their interactions. We know where we went wrong. We believed individual choices in the public commons will not have collective consequences. This is a classic case of a collective action problem.

This has to change. If we continue to think like we’ve always thought, we’ll continue to get what we’ve always got. We must invert this pyramid and move to a paradigm where walking and cycling will take precedence. The government cannot continue to believe in the market, correcting a collective action problem caused by it. Restoring a market failure needs the state to act.

Providing road-space for cyclists and pedestrians must be a mandate, not a guideline.

Getting away from decades-long practice will need people to abandon their existing well-oiled behaviours. It is important to note here that a footpath houses water, sewage, electricity, telecom, lamp posts, furniture, trees, entrances to properties, people, cycles and much more, but despite this wide range of usefulness, the willingness, prioritisation, and budgetary allocation for this is the lowest. The contracting mechanisms and thought process among the engineering cadre steers the city to build more of what they have always done, which is to pour asphalt. 

There is also a perceived behavioural bias. Owners of motor vehicles believe it will deprive them of the mobility they are used to. This is called loss aversion. To them, having good infrastructure to walk or cycle doesn’t offset the comfort of driving out the gate in their vehicles. Decision makers, who themselves are used to driving, amplify this impression, forming an echo chamber they cannot stop hearing.

Need for a new law

One of the most powerful ways for the state to correct this is to enact legislation to bring equity back to the streets. It needs to prioritise building pedestrian and cycling infrastructure as an affirmative action over any other investment. Affirmative action ensures quotas by law, based on the understanding that the proportion of some things needs to be forced higher, when market forces and society alone will not achieve that.

In the case of transportation, the state needs to allocate space for walking and cycling on all the streets, both retroactively and in the future. This could take various forms, from dedicated lanes to sharing the streets by slowing down the motor vehicle traffic. Not just as a guideline, but as a mandate. The state must also protect walking and cycling with legal cover that penalises abuse of these allocated spaces.

What would it take to enact this law? It will take lawmakers thinking outside the car. We might own a motor vehicle, but we cannot think for everyone from within it. Especially when it is the source of failure and imposes a cost on others. It’s time for a law that promotes active mobility as an affirmative action.

An Active Mobility Act will provide legislative sanction for affirmative action in transportation. What will such an act look like? For one it will have to ensure outcomes, and not merely outputs. Outcomes that ensure walkability, cycle-ability and safety of the vulnerable on the streets. Audits will help accomplish this. Quantitatively and qualitatively measuring how safe you feel walking and cycling safely out of your gate, is the only way to establish we have reached the goal.

Wouldn’t it help if the law mentioned mandatory footpaths and cycle tracks? Yes it will, but it may not cover the entire city. A recent study concluded, 43 per cent of roads in Bengaluru were ten meters wide or narrower. It is probably the same in other cities in India. What happens on these roads that won’t allow segregated walking and cycling tracks? Vehicles and people will share them. We have to work with the reality of the way our cities have grown in the past.

Traffic rules also have to be sensitive to the new agenda. An order by Bengaluru Traffic Police (248/TD/COP/2014) set the speed limit for passenger vehicles in Bengaluru to 70 kilometres per hour. Such blanket rules need to go and in its place graded speed limits introduced based on the intervention type. So the methods of ensuring walkability, cycle-ability and safety will vary in the city based on the neighbourhood and its road characteristics. Prioritising roads and designing interventions with the involvement of local communities will help scale this right.

Flexibility is also key to adoption. Singapore, for example, allows a person on a bicycle to use a shared pedestrian space with a reduced speed limit of 10 km/hour, 25 km/hour on bicycle paths and to ride on the roads with motor vehicle speed limits. This flexibility allows people to know they have the right to access many spaces even if under different rules, and therefore increases adoption of cycling. 

Won’t the city be non-compliant the minute the legislature passes this Act? Yes. Even at 200 kilometres a year, segregated infrastructure on the major roads which make up 15 per cent of the road length in Bengaluru will take a decade to build. But this also provides an opportunity for the infrastructure builders, like BBMP & BDA in Bengaluru, to submit a time-bound action plan to rectify this deficit. It also allows the public to hold them accountable for adherence to the same, and incentivises the authorities to be compliant in new areas and not repeat old mistakes. It is a win-win for all.

Does infrastructure alone solve the problem? No, we also need to enshrine the rights of cyclists and walkers on the street. Any affirmative action has to transfer the burden of proof away from the vulnerable in case of conflicts and incidents. It signals the intent to protect their rights. The current norms treat people riding a bicycle as though they are in motor vehicles, while they are in fact just as vulnerable as people on foot.

The need to define the rights of Active Mobility modes, and set penalties for those abusing their rights must be strong and enforceable. This is the only way we can increase the rate of change towards a more liveable city.

Sathya Sankaran is the ‘Bicyle Mayor’ of Bengaluru, part of a global collaboration between citizens in many cities to promote cycling as a viable transport option for people.

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