EMBARQ and Shell Foundation co-host event to discuss transport solutions for public health and road safety.
Urban transport systems must be designed so that all road users are safe and healthy. Photo by Mani Babbar.
Road traffic crashes are among the leading causes of death and disability in Indian cities, but the trend can be reversed through sustainable transport and planning that prioritizes people, not vehicles, concluded a group of public health and transport experts at today’s “Sustainable Transport Saves Lives” roundtable discussion.
The event, co-hosted by EMBARQ and Shell Foundation, was held during the Urban Mobility India 2010 Conference & Expo in New Delhi. Speakers ranged from an Indian medical doctor, who explained the link between transport and health, to a Colombian transport engineer, who made the case for improving road safety through holistic transport design.
Road traffic crashes account for 1.2 million deaths per year, and this figure is likely to double by 2030 to become the fifth leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. This means that 3,000 people per day are dying on roads. In India alone, there were 120,000 deaths from road traffic incidents in 2008.
The rate of disabilities is also very high. For every traffic-related death, nearly 50 people are likely to be hospitalized, and 80 to 100 people are likely to receive care for minor injuries. Other problems associated with transportation include exposure to air pollution, lack of physical activity and the stress of driving, which can lead to many health problems, including lung and heart disease, obesity, diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure.
“This sets alarm bells ringing,” said Judith Pollock, business director of sustainable transport for Shell Foundation. “But when good quality sustainable transport solutions are put in place, we can start to reverse this trend.”
The pace and growth of urbanization in India creates an urgent opportunity to provide safe streets for people, explained Dr. G Gururaj of the Department of Epidemiology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences.
In India, 30% of the population, or about 285 million people, live in cities. By 2021, the number of urban residents is expected to reach 473 million, and by 2051, it is projected to skyrocket to 820 million. In addition to exploding population growth, India is experiencing a steady increase in the number of cars and roads. However, this development has also led to a constant rise in road deaths. Young people are particularly at risk, as are cyclists and pedestrians.
“Are we gaining less and losing more?” Gururaj questioned an audience of about 80 transport experts, young professionals and Indian city officials. “People are very happy with adding buses and vehicles and building roads, but to what extent does it really help people improve the quality of life of people?"
“Most premature deaths are preventable and predictable,” EMBARQ Senior Transport Engineer Dario Hidalgo said. “Sustainable transport has the opportunity to provide us with a way out of the difficult problems we are facing.”
Traditionally, city officials first predict the growing number of vehicles and then provide enough capacity for them to travel by building more roads. “This doesn't work; this is a 20th century approach,” Hidalgo said. “If we add more lanes to reduce congestion, we end up in a worse situation than we started.”
Instead, Indian cities can follow the example of developing cities like Sao Paulo, Brazil, Guayaquil, Mexico, Manila, Phillipines and Santiago, Chile, which have comprehensive sustainable transport policies, encouraging high-density, mixed-use development near high-quality mass transit, to improve the quality of life for their residents.
Hidalgo emphasized the “Avoid-Shift-Improve” approach to sustainable transportation, which means avoiding unnecessary vehicle travel through things like transit-oriented development and telecommuting; shifting to more efficient and safer modes, like walking, cycling and mass transit; and finally, improving vehicles, facilities and operations, such as increasing fuel efficiency.
He referred to the common pressures placed on developing countries to increase car ownership as a symbol of economic growth. "There's this feeling that if we have more cars, we are more wealthy as a society; this is not true," he said, pointing to statistics that show how European cities have higher Gross Domestic Product (GDP) than American cities but experience much less automobile use.
Prof. Shivanand Swamy from CEPT University presented a case study of Ahmedabad’s Janmarg bus rapid transit (BRT) system as an example of shifting people out of their cars into mass transit as a way to improve road conditions, mobility and public health.
Speeds for all modes of traffic in the city have increased since the BRT system launched 13 months ago. Despite faster traffic, fatalities and major accidents have been reduced, contrary to common thinking. Part of the success is due to driver training and incentives. For example, bus drivers receive a Rs 500 reward if they experience an accident-free month.
Swamy said that 50% of Janmarg BRT users were not bus users before. “What we have found is that people are willing to shift into public transportation, even if the speeds in other traffic have increased,” Swamy said. “BRT is seen as modern - even the rich people are cramped and traveling in one bus with everyone else - that's an important change: how you create an image for ‘transport for all.’”
The roundtable experts outlined several other solutions to deal with the scale of the road safety problem in India.
1) Success depends on integration across different sectors, such as health, transport and urban planning, as well as between the general public, bureaucrats, technical experts and political leaders.
"Let us not look at the current transport situation as only a problem related to a transport, urban development, or health departments,” Gururaj said. “We live in the midst of people, and whatever do should be done of the health and safety of people.”
2) Planners and engineers need to incorporate safety and accessibility in the design of transport systems, focusing on the person, not the vehicle.
“There is a saying, ‘speed thrills but kills,’” said Mr. Sanjeev Lohia, Officer on Special Duty of the Ministry of Urban Development. “But all of our designers and implementers design for speed, so they are designing without taking into account that this can kill. How can we be so inhuman?”
There are ways of making infrastructure more “forgiving,” Hidalgo added. “People make mistakes,” he said, “but those mistakes should not lead to injury or death.” Indian cities can do this by reducing speed on the roads and designing infrastructure with safety concepts in mind.
Dr. Lalita Sen, professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University, stressed the importance of making transport systems accessible for all users, including the disabled and elderly.
“If you have universal design in public transport, whether you’re hauling children or older relatives, then you don't need to worry about if they need extra help,” she said. “They are able to use the system independently and effectively, and it reduces the possibility of accidents and makes lives easier for everyone and much less stressful.”
3) Experts must communicate their evidence-based research to provide a compelling story about the link between transport and public health to encourage decision-makers to make change on the ground.
“It's only when we count the number of deaths on a certain highway, that we’ll be able to find out where things are going wrong and what needs to be corrected,” Gururaj said. “Driver education is a serious issue and needs to be done in a scientific way.”
4) There is a need for investing in research to measure and monitor the impact of transport policy on urban development.
Gururaj continued: “Most policymakers think investing in research is waste of time and money, but it’s crucial that we understand, if we are adding 5,000 buses in the city and 10,000 two-wheelers, what is the impact on the health of people."
As a follow-up to the roundtable, EMBARQ and Shell Foundation will be issuing a one-page summary of policy recommendations and next steps to serve as a guide for Indian cities to plan and design safer and healthier transport systems.
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