The Global Urbanist

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Climate-proofing the city: three simple ideas from Delhi

Earlier this month, New Delhi played host to the International Workshop on Sustainable and Climate Resilient Urban Development, supported by the UK Department for International Development and the Rockefeller Foundation. It brought together think tanks, municipal corporations and other stakeholders to envision climate-resilient solutions to urban planning problems. This article by Abby Callard of Beyond Profit in Mumbai outlines three simple ideas presented at the workshop.

Cities: Delhi, London

Topics: Integrated planning, Roads and traffic, Walking and cycling, Climate change

Double the density, halve the Carbon?

For many visitors to India, cities appear to be bursting at the seams. Sidewalks have been taken over by vendors, people walk in the street battling cars, autos, scooters and bikes. But what might seem like a problem may be a solution. Higher population density, says Ajit Mohan of McKinsey, is a way to reduce the environmental impacts of civilisation.

Mohan advocates the double density principle, citing research that suggests that "if you double density, you see a decreased use of private cars." You also see a decrease of 60% in total carbon emissions.

But in some cities in India, can the density be doubled? Mumbai, which topped a Forbes Magazine list of the world's densest cities in 2007, had a population density of 29,650 residents per square kilometre. For reference, New York City had a density of 10,630 residents per square kilometre in 2009. Can the densest city in the world be twice as dense?

Creating dense and livable cities will be a challenge to urban planners in the developing world. Of course, existing infrastructure systems would have to be improved, and none of this development would come with a small price tag. Using Delhi as an example, he estimated costs at US$1.2 trillion to improve water and sanitation, but 70 to 80 per cent of that could be raised within the city itself.

India, Mohan said, is in a unique position because 80 per cent of what will exist in the country in 2030 hasn't been built yet. Smaller cities, of which there are currently around 6,000, have the opportunity to urbanise with a smart, more deliberate urban plan than the 68 cities that already have a million or more residents. But one thing has to happen: "there will have to be greater densification," declares Mohan.

Encouraging surface transportation

Mike Keegan, London's Transport Commissioner, approached the concierge at his hotel in New Delhi to ask how to reach India Gate, a memorial to Indian soldiers who died in World War I and the Afghan Wars. The man told him to take a bus or a taxi.

"But it's only a mile away, can't I just walk?" Keegan asked.


Land transport — walking and biking — are often ignored when talking about public transportation, Keegan told the audience at the conference the next day. In India, this is especially true because vendors often crowd sidewalks and force walkers into the streets.

To encourage walking would take more than a shift in people's thinking — infrastructure in whole cities would have to be addressed.

But such transport solutions shouldn't be overlooked, as India's cities are growing at a rate that's unlikely to slow anytime soon. Combine that with the growing Indian middle class — McKinsey estimates that India's demand for private vehicles will increase six times by the year 2030 — and India will have to drastically rethink transportation in its major cities.

Currently there are 250 million private cars in India. If the McKinsey estimate is true, that means 1.6 billion cars will vie for space on Indian roads in 2030. And traffic on the subcontinent is already bad. In a recent IBM study of traffic worldwide, New Delhi ranked fifth in the commuter pain index, and 40 per cent of drivers were willing to work longer hours if their commute were shorter.

At the conference, Keegan presented a case study of London. The city has dramatically increased its share of commuters who get to work via bike and walking by making their trips easier and safer.

Changing the mind of Indians might not be as hard as it seems. The Comprehensive Transportation Study for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region reported that 60 per cent of all trips were on foot while 40 per cent of work-related trips were on foot in Mumbai. But the trips are not easy — or safe.

Cities in India would be best to create an environment where vendors, walkers, bikers and motorised vehicles can share the space in a safe, efficient way. One way India is already making walking safer in cities is by building pedestrian bridges that extend over roads and intersections.

Of course, there are issues with the pedestrian bridges as well. One of their glaring shortcomings is the fact that they are not handicapped-friendly — most require scaling a significant flight of stairs. Because there are few points to enter and exit the bridges, roadside vendors' business tends to suffer.

There are fewer strategies that exist for increasing bike traffic in the developing world, but one only needs to look to bike-friendly cities in Europe and North America to see that solutions exist.

High-traffic area tax

As Delhi was gearing up for the Commonwealth Games which start next week, the city was attempting to revamp existing infrastructure and deal with issues such as slums, beggars and traffic.

One of the ways Delhi is looking to control the traffic for the games — and a scheme that can be continued to cut down on carbon emissions in the future — is congestion charging. The concept is simple enough: drivers have to pay for the right to drive into the city's traffic-heavy areas.

Mike Keegan presented London's version of the congestion-charging scheme at the conference. In London's city centre and nearby areas, including Hyde Park, Chelsea and Soho, a driver has to pay eight pounds per day. Drivers can pay in advance and receive a discount. For example, a 20-day pass is £136. The fee is only charged from 7am to 6pm, Monday through Friday.

Although the scheme sounds similar to tolls on a highway, drivers can physically enter the zone without paying. But if they're caught failing to pay within an allotted time, they are fined £120. Drivers can pay by phone, online, at a local shop or by mail.

Since the charge was implemented in London, traffic entering the charge zone decreased by 21 per cent — 70,000 fewer cars a day. People are opting for public transportation — the city saw a 6 per cent increase in bus ridership during charging hours. In the financial year 2007/2008, the programme raised £ 137 million.

Not only does the extra charge discourage drivers from travelling into heavily congested areas, it also produces revenue that can be invested into improving transportation — like pedestrian walkways and bike sharing programmes.

So can this programme be replicated in India? The country, as well as the world, will be closely following the Commonwealth Games in Delhi this October. The games are supposed to showcase a new image of "shining India". The congestion-charging scheme should be watched closely as well, as it represents a way for New Delhi to get its traffic under control as well as reduce carbon emissions.

This article appeared in slightly amended form in Beyond Profit, (here, here and here) reprinted with permission.


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