Kalpana Viswanath, Co-Founder and CEO, Safetipin
For all of us working on sustainable urbanisation, development and mobility, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a challenge: How do we continue working on building viable mobility options to ensure that the goals of sustainable and equitable urbanisation are supported and furthered? By nature, cities are spaces of intermingling, assembly and sociability. How will we relate to our cities when we come out of this pandemic? This is the question that many are asking. While we are all dealing with the uncertainty as well as the barrage of information on COVID-19, we are just living one day at a time, precisely because no one can really predict what is actually going to happen over the next months.
The automobile-centred city has been the legacy of the 20th century. As the number of cars increased, it led to building of flyovers to speed up car movement and allow for faster speeds. But over the past decade, many cities globally have now been moving away from car-centredness and encouraging walking, cycling and public transport. This model of car-centred development has led to congestion on the streets, unending traffic jams, as well as increased levels of pollution. London is a great example of changing the nature of the street through the congestion charge to discourage people from bringing their cars into central London. It has led to lowering of casualties from road accidents, increased bus usage and increased bike usage in the ten years that it has been implemented. Road calming methods include painting the road particularly at intersections to slow down cars, providing benches and seating areas as has been done in many cities as diverse as New York and Addis Ababa. Seoul in Korea actually took the decision to remove six flyovers that had been built in the 1970’s to create a 9 km long promenade by restoring a stream in the heart of the city. This transformed the activity on the street, which became much more pedestrian friendly and engaging.
In many countries across Asia and Africa, large numbers of people still walk, bicycle and are dependent on public transport. Further informal transport systems are the lifeline for a majority of the population, especially in contexts where the formal system does not reach everywhere and everyone. This has been deeply impacted in this period as city streets have emptied of people and people have lost their jobs and livelihoods. The pandemic has served to only sharpen the fault lines in our cities with the greatest impacts on the most vulnerable groups. In India, the lasting image of the pandemic is going to be the unending tragedy of migrant workers who were stranded by the lockdown and some had to walk home thousands of miles.
As countries slowly open up and economies try to revive themselves, ensuring safe mobility is going to be a key challenge. Not everyone can work from home – it is the privilege of certain kinds of occupations. Factory workers, domestic workers, health workers, street vendors, the hospitality sector – in reality all blue collar workers as well as those in the informal sector, will need to venture out of their homes to be able to earn money and survive. Data from the International Labour Organisation shows that nearly 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy – that is nearly half of the global workforce – are in danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.
In such a context, the critical imperative is to support the most vulnerable while we build back, hopefully, better. When reopening public transport, we need to look at the operators as partners in this process. We should recognise that they are equally concerned with staying well and helping to contain the spread of the virus as they need to start working both for their own livelihoods, as well as supporting their fellow residents to get back to work. We need innovative and out of the box solutions. For example, in Gurgaon, India, there is a system of shared e-rickshaws. These are electric vehicles that wait at metro stations and carry four passengers to nearby locations at a low cost. In response to the need for physical distancing, they are not only carrying only two passengers, but have put a sheet as a shield between the passengers. This is a simple and low-cost solution that will instill confidence in commuters to use the service. In the coming months, transport systems, especially those servicing the most vulnerable, will need to be supported to continue operations. We have a moral imperative to ensure that the fallout of the virus (which has already killed so many) does not impoverish and destroy more lives. It is a time to be resilient, flexible and above all, compassionate.