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5 Keys to Sustainable Development in Indian Cities

This post also appears on TheCityFix.com.

Indian cities are urbanizing at an unprecedented scale and pace. Over the next few decades, India’s urban population is expected to increase significantly, from 377 million in 2011 to 590 million by 2030.

The problem is that the country’s existing urban transport infrastructure is already over-capacity. This fact–coupled with the alarmingly high rate of traffic fatalities, increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, and urban sprawl–has created a sense of urgency to improve the quality of life in our cities now for the benefit of future generations.

Against this backdrop, WRI’s Center for Sustainable Transport in India (EMBARQ India), in collaboration with the Brihanmumbai Electrical Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST), held its first annual CONNECTKaro conference last week. The theme was two-fold: first, to “CONNECT” sustainable urban transport to urban development, and second, “Karo,” a Hindi word meaning to “do it”–to make it happen. Scaling sustainable transport and integrating it with land-use development is essential so that Indian cities remain dynamic engines of economic growth, whilst providing a high quality of life for residents.

The conference was a major success, attended by more than 220 people representing public transport authorities, government planning agencies, civil society organizations, private corporations, media, and academia. Additionally, more than 2,100 people watched the conference sessions via live webcast.

Through a dozen sessions spanning two days, conference participants discussed in detail how to scale and replicate a variety of sustainable urban transport and development solutions in Indian cities. Five key messages emerged from their deliberations:
1) Bus Rapid Transit Is Here to Stay

This year is set to witness a significant expansion of bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in Indian cities. Janmarg in Ahmedabad, India’s first fully fledged BRT launched in 2009, will expand its network from 62 kilometers to 88 kilometers. New BRT systems are set to launch in Indore and Surat. In total, nearly 50 kilometers of additional BRT corridors will be operational in Indian cities by the end of 2013.

Meanwhile, other cities–such as Hubli-Dharwad, Pimpri-Chinchwad, and Naya Raipur–are in advanced stages of BRT planning and construction. Mumbai and Bangalore are in the initial stages of planning their own BRT systems. Given these developments, the next few years are likely to be a “tipping point” for the expansion of BRT in Indian cities. With the right combination of political will, resource allocation, knowledge-sharing, and technical expertise, India could witness a true scaling of these advanced bus systems across its cities.

Key to realizing this success, as Abhijit Lokre from CEPT University pointed out, will be building BRT systems based on the idea of “local innovations for local conditions.” Given the diverse conditions in Indian cities, it would be counterproductive to insist on a rigid blueprint for BRT. Instead, flexibility in implementation would allow each city to develop a system to match its own unique needs and constraints.

Moreover, the experiences of Ahmedabad, Delhi, and Pune have shown that successful BRT systems in India are those that are treated as programs, not projects. We must move beyond the tendency to treat BRT systems as mere construction projects and commit to regarding them as systems that require continual resource investment, performance monitoring, and quality improvement.

Finally, treating public consultation and outreach as a core activity rather than an afterthought would result in increased buy-in from local communities.
2) Transit-Oriented Development Is the “Next Big Thing”

While the scaling-up of BRT systems is an encouraging development, merely increasing the supply of mass transport will not be enough. The integration of land use and transportation is also essential. Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD) is increasingly viewed as the next big solution that will connect sustainable transport to sustainable urban development in India. Given that the spatial expansion of Indian cities is inevitable, mainstreaming concepts like TOD will be vital for ensuring this growth happens in a compact and sustainable manner, minimizing negative externalities like sprawl, air pollution, and increased infrastructure cost.
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