Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Think Beyond the Road

Think Beyond the Road
What we think of as traffic problems are in fact the result of problems in many other aspects of our city’s life

Traffic is one of those things about which everyone has strong views. The solutions appear obvious — level sidewalks, better buses, more enforcement, and so on. Reams of research papers appear to confirm our intuitive understanding too. As a result, we can’t imagine why on earth the police and the politicians haven’t yet applied these obvious answers.
The truth is, this is more than a managerial or technological problem. Regulating traffic properly, and designing infrastructure better are certainly things we should be doing, but on this front we are taking some steps. Bangalore is surely and steadily equipping itself better through technology - and a greater commitment to public transport - to respond to the everyday issues of urban mobility. Where we are failing is in other areas.
Like many other things in society, traffic too is a matter of finding a balance between different interests. What we
think of as traffic problems
are in fact the result of
problems in many other aspects of our city’s life. Let me give you a small example. A lot of people - including those who read English newspapers such as this one - want to hire cheap workers to drive their cars, mop their homes and cook their meals, but they don’t always like it if these ‘servants’ live too close to their own homes. But what is the alternative? Where should the poorer sections of society live? Far away? If so many of them need to travel to get to their jobs, how can we expect that there wouldn’t be traffic problems to deal with?
One-third of people in this city doesn’t have decent, affordable housing. And housing is not the only such example. We can think of others - the livelihoods of small shopkeepers, the education of poor children, the health of most citizens - all of which lead to some kind of ‘demand’ for mobility. But we rarely talk about traffic in these terms. Instead nearly all our arguments are about travel times, smog, climate, and the horsepower packed into the latest bike or car. And when those are exhausted, we discuss ill-trained cops, and harassment, and corruption in the ‘system’.
But we ourselves are the system. I have been saying this often at many events around the city - we own the problems, and we must therefore own the solutions too. The answers to the challenges we face are to be found in informed voting, a spirit of volunteerism to support our communities and public officials, and in sometimes doing things without waiting for the government. The answer also lies in understanding the tensions in our society, and finding the right balance - by engaging each other in conversations, and agreeing to respect each other’s needs and aspirations.


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