Planning Mass Transit – a Review

Reviewed by Associate Editor Connor Haseley

In “The Politics of Urban Transport Planning in Ahmedabad, India,” Austin Crouse examines how the framing of problems of urban transport along statistical lines relates to the failure of many mass transit projects to reduce private vehicle travel, and further how such framing contributes to inequality and lack of inclusivity of poor people. Focusing on the city of Ahmedabad, India, a city often cited as an example of progressive urban planning, Crouse uses discourse analysis to examine how the planning and development of the Indian city is oriented around the needs of the middle class and upper class at the expense of the poorest.

Crouse starts by introducing the Indian city as a city plagued by pollution, one in which sprawl has developed unchecked and is no longer concentrated around transportation infrastructure. He introduces the theory of transport-oriented development — which attempts to reduce reliance on motorized transport by reducing the distance between home, work, and public transit — in order to criticize it for its inconsideration of feedback effects and its lack of community engagement. He posits that Indian cities must be planned such that exiting preferences for non-motorized transport are maintained, criticizing Ahmedabad’s internationally renowned bus rapid transit system for not doing this.

Crouse notes that since 1991 the Indian central government has poured more resources into cities, examining specifically a 2015 urban renewal project tasked with creating ‘smart cities’. He problematizes this development by critiquing the principles of sustainability which underlie ‘smart city’ projects by saying that increased modal choice does not necessarily mean increased mobility, and that high fares mean increased modal choice would not serve the poor and would hamper pedestrian infrastructure.

Crouse introduces his theoretical underpinnings most cogently in the literature review, where he references urban planning as a ‘wicked problem,’ whereby the solution favored by each actor is determined by the type of actor (engineer, community activist, politician, etc.) and the frameworks through which each actor sees urban planning. Crouse’s argument itself is an example of how frameworks beget solutions — his framing of urban planning as a ‘wicked problem’ leads directly to his solution: communication between different actors and incorporation of all perspectives, as opposed to privileging the scientific-technical lexical framework which Crouse shows has become dominant in Indian urban planning. He links the unplanned and vibrant communities at the edge of the underused ‘top-down’ modernist cities of Brasilia and Changigarh with the ‘top-down’ style of many recent Indian urban development projects, both of which pose significant inclusivity problems for poor and marginalized communities. Crouse ends the literature review by identifying the discourse-coalitions which form around terms such as ‘sustainable development’ and ‘eco-modernity’ with the problematic discourse of scientific-technical modernization.

Finally, Crouse introduces his specific study of Ahmedabad, explaining that he conducted interviews with 36 people broken down into academics, government officials, consultants, and civil society workers, and used political discourse analysis. He finds two discourse-coalitions, one in which government officials rely on authoritarian methods to implement high modernist designs, and one in which the other three groups coalesce around ecological modernism, though he complicates this by stressing the unwillingness to communicate between groups. Though he makes some differentiations between the four groups, he stresses that each of the four focus on top-down solutions which appeal to discourses of modernization. He details the fracture between civil society actors which use scientific-technical language and those which do not, castigating the former for not endorsing participatory approaches.

After a historically situated critique of the international institutionalization of inflexible high-modernist approaches to urban planning which Crouse says are unsuited to Ahmedabad, Crouse once again criticizes the lack of inclusion of marginalized communities and even civil society groups in the development of ‘smart cities’ throughout India, focusing on the negative effects of the displacement inevitable caused by capital-intensive megaprojects. He concludes by once again associating eco-modernism with the faults of high-modernism, and emphasizes how these narratives exclude civil society organizations advocating for inclusive planning. He ends with the hope that new and inclusive discourse-coalitions can be built around the goals decentralization and localization of power, using the visual aspects of displacement as a reminder that current urban development schemes cannot capture the world in an algorithm.

A few points of criticism for this paper: It often changes in scope within specific sections: although his on-the-ground research focused solely on actors in Ahmedabad, Crouse often goes back and forth between points specific to Ahmedabad, points specific to India, and points general to urban theory, such that the paper’s strongest aspect, the collection of data, appears secondary. Crouse often does not directly link Ahmedabad to the theories he cites. Further, Crouse’s distrust of scientific-technical language and planning is not as well-founded or as well-stated as it could be — on the one hand he acknowledges the role of scientific expertise, while at the same time blaming the lexical gap between technical and non-technical actors for the lack of inclusivity. Additionally, Crouse’s pro arguments for participatory development, pedestrian infrastructure, alternatives to displacement, and the like, are often more implicit than explicit. Nowhere does he lay out a full theoretical justification for why participatory development, for example, is good in and of itself along with its accompanying lexicon, nor does he explicitly cite the work of other urban theorists. Lastly, his selective use of data was made weaker by lack of context: changes in population density and private vehicle use do not happen in a vacuum, and solely blaming urban planning for trends which have multiple causes without explicitly acknowledging that fact runs the risk of reifying the all-powerful conception of the state which Crouse explicitly argues against in his critique of high-modernism and the arrogance of urban planners. That said, this paper is a strong piece of critique which effectively shows how urban politics function in Ahmedabad, and Crouse’s persistent focus on marginalized communities is a well-centered avenue of problematization of urban narratives which unfortunately predominate in too many places.

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