This question occured in my mind after reading a thought provoking book titled ‘Building The Cycling City – The Dutch Blueprint For Urban Vitality’. The authors of the book, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett are a family of professionals actively promoting the cause of healthy living, environment and social benefits of cycling, walking and public transportation.
Founders of ‘modacitylife’ the Vancouver based couple also holds focused talks and presentations on multi-modal transit systems with the emphasis of having accessible infrastructure and city designs that are human and nature friendly. Their goal is to influence the policy makers to create a more welcoming environment for citizens and tourists alike.
Can Mumbai Echo The Dutch Blueprint?
This question may sound unfitting or much ahead of time for Mumbaikars (people living in Mumbai often address themselves as Mumbaikars), but if not answered now, then when? Do we wait for our authorities to provide us with the much needed cycling infrastructure or do we step up the game and built an atmosphere of change and demand for a more conducive urban transportation model. While the later has it’s set of challenges, taking a former approach in isolation might not deliver the desired results either. It’s about who makes the first move – citizens or the government officials. I reckon it’s a collaborative effort where both parties will have to work in tandem and progress in sync. Let’s assume that the so called ‘Smart city’ is provided with a protected bike lane or maybe the authorities initiate ‘Car free days’. What will be the response? Initially, there are chances that the participation might be low, but slowly the turnout would increase as more people start finding merit in it. They will volunteer gradually and accept it in the long run as a routine activity. Chris Bruntlett shares a similar view “Bike-friendly cities won’t happen without a significant policy shift at the governmental level, and that shift won’t happen without a collective desire for safer streets. But in our opinion, that latent demand already exists; demonstrated in the tremendous surge in ridership every time a protected bike lane is built”.
Consciously, commuters are aware of the benefits of smart commuting and do have an inner drive to get on the roads on a bicycle. But the practical situation is what restricts them. Somewhere they haven’t been able to voice their opinions and thus the authorities continue to lead the change with city projects favoring car centric designs.
Chris further adds “It is estimated that 70% of people are quietly interested in taking up healthier means of transportation, but are concerned and would do it more often if conditions were made suitable. However, politicians and the press still allow the loudest and most extreme voices to dominate the discussion. We wrote this book to reassure decision-makers that pursuing this kind of policy shift is a politically popular act, everything will turn out for the better, and even the most ardent opponents will come around eventually”.
Another key aspect to Mumbai’s situation is that we can’t directly emulate the Dutch model. Our problems are different – so the diagnosis has to be worked out considering local conditions. The space is not just a ‘constraint’ for us but also a ‘constant’. What is ‘variable’ is the ‘number of vehicles and the people coming onto it’. Therefore, the solution lies in balancing the variable and reshaping the constant to keep it both integrated with a design that functions in harmony addressing people’s day to day needs.
As we take a case of Dutch, they have made cycling a way of life. With dedicated lanes, cycling is considered to be most effective and with low safety concerns, the locals don’t even feel the need to use helmets (however, ‘use of helmets’ remains a point of debate). But here in Mumbai, the scenario is far more different. A major concern if of ‘safety’ due to reckless driving, unsteady road conditions and very little respect and space for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s a clear outcome of poor planning and implementation of the past projects that lacked vision. For years, the city has been planned and designed for cars while the pedestrians are left to their fate. Hence, it’s time that the city authorities move swiftly from appeasing motorist to encouraging cyclist, from awarding contracts to build just roads to involve creative minds who are willing to offer holistic street designs as a solution. Because ‘if the Dutch could do it, Mumbaikars can do it too’
When i first read about Dutch history of cycling in the book, i learnt that the place was just like any other European city full of cars in the early 1940’s. Thankfully, active citizens thought about their children and future generations. Later, what the Dutch did is a serious case study for us to learn and apply. The dutch could achieve this as they were sensitive about their actions; and believed in taking a transformational approach. Copenhagen and Vancouver are other great examples where cycling has picked up in the last decade as authorities gave more priority to it while planning for their projects. And the results have started to show up.
So how can Mumbai achieve what other cities have done? the task is certainly not easy. According to Chriss “The first step would be to recognize that a livable city and a car-centric city are mutually exclusive places. By widening our streets, building more space for parking and separating the various functions of the city, engineers and urban planners are creating hostile conditions that are leading to immense problems such as congestion, obesity, climate change, traffic violence, affordability, inequity, and social isolation. Amsterdam and Copenhagen recognized this fact very early on, and resisted the destructive ideas that post-war planners were trying to foist onto them under the guise of “urban renewal”. Only in the past ten years has Vancouver started a similar course correction, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful or impactful, as they’ve managed to double the number of people cycling to work in that period of time”.
The point in case is that people are willing to experiment & wise enough to make their choices – choosing between a car or a simple bicycle. But transportation needs has to be backed by proactive inclusive policies. In the absence of a supportive infrastructure, the hesitation and fear to walk or cycle shall continue to prevail keeping vehicles in dominant position. However, it is often said that ‘nothing is impossible if you have the will’. The current situation can be turned around if we are able to mobilize our resources with innovative street designs, best in class public transportation and little sacrifice by giving up cars. The difficulty is in resisting speed that cars offers and the distance it covers. But the start can happen by using a cycle for shorter routes and to fulfill simple purposes. Precisely, a combination of short term and long term measures can do the trick for us. Chris advises “In short term, we always encourage cities to forget about the commute to work, and start focusing on the errands we run to the local restaurant, market, cafe, school, or transit stop. If we can make those shorter, more frequent trips comfortable and convenient, then we can reduce the number of unnecessary car trips in our communities, and get a whole new segment of the population on their bikes. From there, we can start looking further afield, with an eye on building a seamless, city-wide network of separated cycle tracks, traffic-calmed boulevards, and off-street trails. But like Rome, the Dutch cycling utopia wasn’t built in a day. It took decades of citizen activism, political will, and a little bit of luck. And we have a great deal to learn from their successes”.
My sincere thanks to the Bruntlett family for their critical inputs in these articles and with like minded goals, we shall now work more closely together.
Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai