May 09, 2006

Transportation and India’s Urban Poor


India’s urbanization process has been slow but it now has one of the largest urban systems in the world. The country is home to 35 cities with populations of more than one million and nearly 40% of its urban population resides in these cities.

Those that migrate to urban areas tend to move in search of employment opportunities rather than because of the amenities available. A large number of India’s urban residents are employed in the informal sector, dependent on non-motorized transport and living in self-constructed housing units with minimal facilities.

This sector continues to be viewed as unwanted, and formal housing and transport plans do not make provisions for its needs. Despite this, however, the formal sector continues to require the support of the unskilled labor provided by migrants from rural areas.

India’s large cities—one million plus population—are, in a sense, agglomerations of several small cities with different economies in close proximity. One economy serves the needs of the affluent and features modern technologies, formal markets and the outward appearance of developed countries. The other serves both sectors and is marked by traditional technologies, informal markets and economic deprivation.

The transportation choices and requirements of these two sectors differ significantly.
It is therefore important for urban travel demand to be understood in the context of differentiated urban growth.

In most Indian cities, the same road space is used by modern cars, buses, three-wheelers, scooters and motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws and animal- and human-driven carts. There exists a dependence on walking and cycling trips, despite the absence of an infrastructure for them, that clearly demonstrates the presence of captive users of these means of transport.

While the share of motorized trips does increase with city size, low-cost modes such as walking, non-motorized rickshaws and cycles continue to play an important role in transportation.

The share of walking trips ranges from 37% in a city of 100,000 population to 28% in megacities with a population of 10 million. This pattern is not expected to change significantly in the near future.

Despite a high share of walking trips and trips by non-motorized means, transport infrastructure investment continues to ignore inclusion of facilities for these modes, while public-transport discussions center largely on capital-intensive systems like the metro.

The argument given for introducing metro systems is that they serve the high-density demands of the city’s corridors. Indian cities have high-density developments in the form of urban slums, but even a subsidized metro system is too expensive for slum dwellers.

Any rail-based system requires a high-density population living along the corridor who can afford the price of that system. This is not the case in most Indian cities.

Current urbanization patterns present a unique opportunity to build an inclusive city that caters to all segments of society. The challenge is to move away from policies and development plans which ignore the existence of the informal sector in housing, transport and livelihood opportunities.


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