Known as the 'Man of Plan' for his role as mayor in transforming Bogota - once infested with crime, drugs and pollution - into a city that now is celebrated worldwide as a model of urban renewal, Enrique Penalosa gave Ahmedabad the idea of a high quality Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) in 2004. On his second visit to the city half a decade later, Penalosa, now president of the board of directors of Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), tells Vinay Umarji how he finds the city is on the right path to urban development.
1. In 2004, when you first visited Ahmedabad, probably one of the most polluted cities in the world at that time, you advocated a lot on urban development. How far have things changed in the city since then?
Things like Kankaria Lakefront, Law Garden, Sabarmati Riverfront, etc. will give Ahmedabad a step ahead over other Indian cities. Especially, the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) project and Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project are some of the best. Of course, it has to be improved further.
2. Your view on how the Ahmedabad Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) project has fared so far. Are there any grey areas according to you in how it is being implemented/planned?
The pedestrian access to the system has to be improved. Specially the city will have to make enough underpasses for each intersections on the route. The real test is to do it on congested roads. Of course, Ahmedabad BRTS is going in the right direction. Maybe, we could construct it more delicately with better painting and finishing to make it look aesthetically better.
3. Do you think Ahmedabad has been able to fully replicate the bus-based public transport system model as implemented by Bogota?
Ahmedabad today is a bit smaller than Bogota. But it is growing rapidly and in future it could be three times in size than that of Bogota. So you will need a bus-based public transport better than what Bogota has. So far the system in Bogota is more finished. We have constructed around 84 km of the route and additional 30 km is under construction. Plus, our system caters to around 1.5 million passengers per day whereas Ahmedabad is only 20,000 passengers per day as of now. However, India has access to sophisticated IT system and it can be used and implemented to make BRTS much better.
Right now, Ahmedabad BRTS is just a baby and will grow gradually. However, pedestrian infrastructure should be improved. BRTS should not be only to improve public transport but to improve urban development. All the communities should demand BRTS to come to their areas but for that to happen BRTS has to be attractive and benefit all communities in general. Moreover, parking is also less and along the road, making footpaths narrower but it is not helping the system much.
4. In what way are 'Transmilenio', Bogota's bus-based public transport system and Ahmedabad BRTS similar? Where are they different?
The most important difference is that while Bogota's bus-based public transport system was placed in the most important and the most congested traffic areas and extended to most important streets, Ahmedabad BRTS has been placed in a marginal street where there is less traffic. We also created significant space for pedestrians which the Ahmedabad BRTS lacks.
5. What further steps do you think Ahmedabad should take in order to improve its urban development?
The Ahmedabad that is today will be only a segment of what it will be in 50 years from now. The government should plan it now and buy land separately for parks, pedestrians, buses, etc. But that is for the future Ahmedabad. For now, the city has to make more footpaths and get rid of parking. Anyway parking is not mentioned in the Indian Constitution and it is not government's responsibility. The government has many other problems to solve. The people also have to understand this. The footpaths, currently, are quite narrow. Footpaths should be wide enough to allow at least two wheelchairs to pass simultaneously.
The urban development will be hindered by traffic woes. With the city growing, traffic will get much worse and flyovers alone will not be able to solve it. Public transport will have to reach everywhere.
6. In cities where cars form the top most priority as far as transport is concerned, how would you convince construction of sidewalks and cycle tracks, among other things?
This is matter of democracy. About 10 per cent of people in Ahmedabad use cars. We need to build the city for the rest. The car owners will have to understand, so will the shop owners. Do you know why people throng malls? Because there are no cars in malls but only walkways. The streets in the city will have to compete with malls. In great cities like New York and London, the central areas do not have malls. The centre of the city has to have great pedestrian streets or else the malls will kill the streets and the centre of the city.
7. Which are the other cities in India where you would suggest adoption of the bus-based public transport model?
In general, every city would need it. In the 20th century, we made cities for cars. In 21st century, we need to make it for people. The only way to solve mobility is by bus-based system.
8. Do you think such transport systems would reduce number of private vehicles on roads?
The important thing is not to reduce vehicles but to use vehicles in a wise manner. In Paris, people have cars but they don't use it to go to work but to go to countryside. The people will have to understand that public transport is not only for the poor but for the rich as well. In fact, even affluent Indians, when they go to London or Paris, take public transport. In advanced cities, it is the rich people who take public transport. In central London, everyone is a millionaire but 98 per cent take public transport. Public transport will, therefore, have to be viewed from a different perspective altogether.