It is imperative that transportation enthusiasts take some time during the COVID-19 pandemic to rethink our normal way of imagining urban transportation system. In our society, the idea of travel being a derived demand has been consolidated by the crisis which has forced us to stay in. The recent works on maintenance of the roads is admirable but what the article premises on is the demand side and the externalities of transportation which involves human interaction.
We perceive our transportation system as roads on which vehicles move along with humans interacting with the infrastructure and among themselves. What we see down there is traffic, sometimes easy and smooth, while at times horribly frustrating. However, what we experience on our roads is actually the result of our urban form that creates the need of travel and the choices we make in regards to our need of travel. The pertinent questions we ought to be looking for with regards to our transportation system are: WHY WE TRAVEL? HOW WE TRAVEL? And finally, WHEN WE TRAVEL?
Deeper inquiry into these questions will make us come up to the idea that the composition, variation and fluctuation of the traffic that our infrastructure has to cater is actually the externality of how we collectively respond to the questions above in our daily lives in accordance to our circumstances.
This time of lockdown has provided us enough time to reflect on these ideas that transportation is not just roads but the way people interact or are induced to interact with it. Since, this is quite tricky, as each individual in a society varies in terms of choices, social and economic background, this area has not been adequately looked into. Trying to understand the answer to the aforementioned three questions would help us take interventions that could not only ameliorate the conditions of our traffic but make long-term changes to the pivot of our transportation system.
For instance, Netherlands which is today known as the cycling capital of the world was moving toward car-based transportation in the 1950s and the 1960s but an oil crisis in 1973 helped them rethink that probably cars dominating the roads would not be in their best interest and they took steps that helped them orient their mobility around people while having a thriving economy. We can only imagine what the authorities might have had to go through while they were imagining the transportation system that was completely different to the trend of that period. Today, it is a great success story.
The externalities of our traffic system like congestion, traffic crashes or pollution is something we would be happy to get rid of. Since the traffic that we see on the roads are actually externalities of our needs of travel and our choices, intervening on the traffic operations are essential but may not prove to be relevant in long-term planning. For instance, congestion which we often view as a problem of our infrastructure being unable to cope with the demand could have solutions in socio-cultural modifications pertaining to our work. The work from home concept, which many managers today are forced to resort to, could be considered as a new normal for a variety of jobs even after lockdowns are lifted. Comprehensive studies on employee-based demand management strategies for different working sectors could be conducted in the urban areas so as to flatten the office hours in such a way that the infrastructure that we have shall be able to cope with the demands. It is almost analogous to flattening the curve, as we speak in COVID-19 jargon, so that the traffic demand could be coped at all times of the day if we have to talk in contemporary terms. For instance, Safe and Sustainable Travel Nepal (SSTN) is an organization working on the research of various areas of transportation system and it provides weekends to its research interns on other days than on Saturdays. One recent practice that we have come up with that directly affects our transportation network is the change in school times that was implemented a couple of years ago. A change of even 15 minutes could significantly attenuate the peak demand.
Another important area that is very important is the issue of equity. Has our transportation system today provided the ease of movement equally to people of different age groups, different socio-economic background or people who are differently abled? Our society though relatively young today, would start ageing and if we do not consider our senior citizens in our planning process today, this might force us to again rethink our transportation infrastructure later. By not planning our mobility for differently abled people, we would restrict their mobility which could directly impact their economic well-being.
Additionally, one aspect that could directly affect the well-being of the people living in urban areas is their degree of mobility and how much they can gain from their degree of mobility. There is no doubt that there is no such thing as perfect equity and the alternative transportation system that we imagine might also not be perfectly equitable but it would not be an exaggeration to state that our current transportation system benefits those who own a private vehicle than those who do not. As a result, those who do not own a private vehicle are enticed toward owning one which takes us toward a vicious cycle of our infrastructure supply not being able to handle the demand over a period of time. Furthermore, the ones using motorbikes are at a much greater risk of crashes and a system that induces individuals to resort to such precarious choices pertaining to our travel needs is not something we should remain complacent about.
Moreover, having a spatial system that hurts the well-being of people who do not own a private mode of transportation is not what we should run after as a society. The current crisis also shows that changing the work culture and alleviating the need of travel unless absolutely necessary would heavily reduce our dependence on cars/motorbikes. Mass-transit is an excellent solution to provide economic mobility but various factors pertaining to its operation, specifically lack of reliability has kept in from being an attractive mode of travel in most urban areas. As a matter of fact, we as a society might be moving toward a stage where we consider having private automobiles as a representation of affluence, by default, and a stereotype of public transit as something for the poor. Former mayor of the Colombian city Bogota, Gustavo Petro, wisely reminds us that “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. Its where the rich use public transportation.”
Any discussion on sustainable transportation will not result in strong outcome if it does not address the issue of urban form and vice-versa. As a matter of fact, our need of travel is largely determined by the arrangement of urban facilities. The study of transportation of the Kathmandu Valley performed by the Japan International Co-operation Agency in 2011 shows that the Kathmandu Valley has the highest population density within the Ring Road and this region also attracts people from outside the Ring Road for employment opportunities. A robust public transportation within the Ring Road with integration of policies like park and ride or park and walk would be helpful to people across all the sectors. However, with regards to the developing urban areas there could be other ways of imagining urban form as well. Establishment of urban facilities like good schools, hospitals, malls and work places in those areas would curtail the need of travel to regions that are already attracting a lot of commute. This could be another way of urban form that would induce a completely different form of urban mobility. It is important to note that every urban area is different in terms of its geography and the people living there and it would be in everyone’s interest to develop the urban form and our transportation system through participatory planning.
We do not yet know the concrete contextual form of our mobility system for our urban areas but most of us would agree that it has to be sustainable, as equitable as possible and should incorporate technological progress within itself. Raising an issue on changing our perception of transportation is one task but it will take a lot more steps than just acting directly on transportation. It includes interventions on spatial processes, human behavior, policies and technological development. A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step, goes a popular Chinese saying, and the time for taking the step could be now.