Live! From Mumbai. ‘Educating Engineers’

“We are here to solve the transport problems of today, not to create solutions to problems that we might have in 30 years time”.

These are the very wise, and often unconsidered, words of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

A few weeks ago I had lunch with an analyst who is predicting traffic movements in 2040. I don’t know what I am going to be doing 2 hours from now, other than that I will be in a slum near Bandra Station, but there are researchers out there who know exactly where our roads are going to be gridlocked 28 years from now.

Yesterday at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Mumbai I participated in an expert panel entitled ‘Mediating public and private transport’.  We explored how to balance the need for more public transport with the demands of those driving private vehicles.

Mumbai’s trains are overflowing and its roads are jammed. 60% – 80% of infrastructure investment is spent on roads for private vehicles yet only 2% – 5% of all trips are made by car. Add to that  69% of all trips are less than 5km in length.

So if we are here to solve the transport problems of today, what can Mumbai do?

  • India has the world’s highest road fatality statistics. When you cross the road in Mumbai you do what I like to call the ‘dash to save your life’. There are a few painted zebra crossings but they are worn away and so basically the local protocol is you just run out; in front of cars, trucks, motorbikes, when and where you want to cross the road. Mumbai needs pedestrian crossings and road safety campaigns and it needs them right now.
  • Mumbai aspires to have a network of BRT Bus Rapid Transit just like Bogota in Colombia. But planning and implementing BRT takes years and considerable investment. Mumbai needs some Janette Sadik-Khan style ‘Guerrilla  Urbanism’. In New York the Department of Transport goes out at late night and paints new, but temporary, bicycle lanes. When the community is happy they make the bike lanes permanent. It’s a cheap and easy way to implement transport schemes.  Right now in Mumbai buses are ‘stuck in traffic’ the Government departments really needs to paint bus lanes – and motorcycle lanes – which would be a first step in reducing some of the road chaos but would also be the first phase of implementing ground level (not another layer/elevated) BRT.
  • We have to change the words and language we use, around the world, not just in Mumbai. We should talk about Accessibility, Mobility and ‘30 minute cities’ (places where you can do and get everything you need within a 30 minute bus or bicycle trip of where you live) and not about traffic, cars and congestion.
  • ‘Experts have one eye closed most of the time” said one member of yesterdays audience “they only see cities through the eye’s of car drivers”. So finally, globally, as well as locally in Mumbai, we need to ‘Educate Engineers’. We need city planners and urban traffic engineers to change and restructure their thinking. Experts need to understand how people are using cities now and then they need to plan cities so that people don’t have to travel far at all.

And finally they should stop car drivers honking. It’s driving me insane!