Modernization and Urban Planning

Reviewed by Associate Editor Priya Mishra

In Austin Crouse’s paper, “The Politics of Urban Transport Planning in Ahmedabad, India,” Crouse investigates how urban transportation decisions are made by analyzing the dialectics between academic researchers, government administrators, policy professionals, and inclusive habitat advocates. Because of unchecked urban sprawl and private vehicle dependence, India is home to thirteen of the most polluted cities in the world and has the highest rate of death caused by respiratory illness.  Crouse analyses the discourse-coalitions between the previously mentioned entities to identify the causes of the problematization of public transit in Ahmedabad, India, and the role the current trend of public transit expansion plays in low-income and marginalized communities and environmental sustainability.

Crouse begins by giving an overview of public transit usage and the history of urbanization in Ahmedabad.  The high levels of pollution and road injuries were not always the norm in Ahmedabad. Initially, urban growth was spatially concentrated around transportation infrastructure, but as housing demand increased, strict rent controls and low floor space regulations in municipally classified areas pushed growth into the neighboring ‘rural’ areas. Public transportation systems could not keep up with the geographic expansion, and urban residents shifted to private vehicles to meet their daily needs.  While many people do use non-motorized transit (NMT), it is inefficient and people switch to private vehicles when they have enough money to buy them.  Crouse argues that rather than attempting to promote a massive shift away from private vehicle use, Indian cities must build urban environments that maintain citizens’ preference for NMT and public transport modes.

There has been such a large focus on being more modern and environmentally sustainable by implementing a metro system that little attention has been paid to how ridership on the Ahmedabad Bus Rapid Transit System has plateaued, failing to encourage a significant shift away from private vehicle use.  Furthermore, the focus on Ahmedabad’s technical progress has overshadowed a more troubling breakdown in trust between Ahmedabad municipal government and local communities.

The government has emphasized technologically advanced and capital-intensive infrastructure, but not one that is more practical, such as pedestrian and cycle-friendly architecture. Investing in new technology does not increase mobility, since potential users do not have the freedom of modal choice, because capital-intensive projects need high fares to recover the cost of construction. They are thus unaffordable for the lower classes.  In this way smart cities have been designed to accommodate the emerging neo-middle class, and, as Crouse argues, unless Indian cities focus on affordability and service quality of public transport to all communities, including lower income communities, they will never achieve healthy and sustainable living environments.

All of the different actors in the public transit creating process have different views on what needs to be done. Government administrators was focused on high-modernist design and economic growth and relied on authoritarian power to suppress controversy and implement identified solutions. Expert consultants, academics, and technocratic civil society members, believed in “ecological modernism.” They attempted to understand the problem of sustainable mobility in great detail, but in recommending specific policy changes, they trusted the existing political and urban development institutions to care for the problem and implement solutions. Finally, Crouse found that civil society members, who called for urban equity in access to resources and social services, were organized out of the accepted discourse-coalitions

So Crouse’s conclusion is that when modernization becomes the center of public transit discourse, then the solutions to environmental issues become framed by scientific and economic perspectives and they both fail to meet the needs of citizens and neglect to address the fragmented governance systems responsible for urban planning in the city.  And, as a result, private actors are able to exploit development opportunities, while the poorest continue to live in dangerous and marginalizing environments.







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