There is Still Hope For The Commuter

Smaller cities and radial roads could bring people closer.
Ashok V. Desai   Delhi     Print Edition: December 3, 2017
There is Still Hope For The Commuter

We are always moving - from home to work, town to city, country to country; movement is so much a part of everyone's life that no one gives much thought to it. Transport is a major consumer of energy, and an inefficient one; it converts 30 per cent of the energy it consumes into movement. As oil runs out and the environment worsens, it will get more of policymakers' attention, but the time has not yet come. Research organised by World Bank on it is ahead of its times and has thrown up some interesting information. Its calculation is that in 2015, humans trotted up 53 trillion passenger-kilometres - almost two kilometres per human per day - while roughly four tonne-kilometres per human were transported per day.

There is an intriguing relationship between the number of trips per head and traffic accidents in cities with over half a million people: The more trips people make, the lower the accidents. But at least in industrial countries, the more vehicle kilometres people drive, the more people die. I guess this is because those who log up more kilometres drive faster; on the other hand, the more trips they make, the more they congest roads, the slower the traffic and the fewer people die. Townsmen dream of living in low-rise homes surrounded by gardens - a dream that was realised in American cities. But that trend has been reversed; average urban density in 29 developed cities went up from 58 in 2001 to 62 in 2012.

The number of cars per head has stabilised in these cities, whereas the number of buses and trains per head is rising; but cars continue to multiply in cities of developing countries. Another intriguing finding is that between 1989 and 2013, the average ratio of shipping costs to imports remained the same for developing countries at about 10 per cent, whereas it fell from 9 to 7 per cent for industrial countries. Apparently, innovations such as larger ships and planes, containerisation and port automation have not spread from industrial to developing countries. Only about a sixth of pairs of countries have direct shipping connectivity; the rest have to depend on their goods being trans-shipped somewhere, which adds to costs.

Not surprisingly, motorcycles and scooters are the most lethal vehicles, responsible for 13.8 deaths per 100 million passenger kilometres. Paradoxically, the next most lethal mode of transport is walking, responsible for 6.4 deaths. Cycles are not far behind, at 5.4. Cars are comparatively safe, at 0.7. The safest are trains, buses, planes and boats. The world's most polluted cities are in the Arab world: Riyadh leads the world at 360 PM10, followed by Ma'ameer in Bahrain. Then come Delhi and Dhaka; Doha and Abu Dhabi are not far behind. Then come Ulan Bator and Dakar. The cleanest cities are in Europe where excellent public transport is combined with high environmental standards.

There are not many figures of trends, but they do not inspire hope for the future; developing countries are not improving their performance, and their share of world GDP is bound to grow. It looks as if the world will recklessly ride the horse of development into an environmental catastrophe. But one thing did strike me about the World Bank study - no one has proposed that we should use less transport. We could plan to build smaller cities in which people would not have to travel so much; we could design radial and circular roads which would reduce the distance between any two points; we could bring people and work closer. Maybe if we apply our minds, we can still bring hope to the commuter.

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