COVID-19 pandemic sheds light on urban inequality vs mobility needs in cities

Millions who make the urban ecosystem tick live as squatters, in dense lanes and single rooms

By Anannya Das
Published: Monday 27 April 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is said to be a game-changer by many. There is, however, no clear cut answer.

The way we used to think, perceive and deal with things is not the same anymore. Never have parts of the world faced lockdowns at once, with people across all walks of life working towards a common goal: How to emerge out of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has flattened the curve of the global economy. Survivors of this pandemic will be witness to the fact that crude oil — or liquid gold — prices turned negative on April 20, 2020.

It also won’t be wrong to point out that the spread of COVID-19 is a byproduct of globalisation and is a threat because it might not just kill you, but also others around you.

One infected person can infect 406 people in 30 days, according to a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research.

The current pandemic also highlights the gaps and shortcoming of planning in our cities and definitely puts a question mark: Are cities livable?

Today, everyone talks about social distancing as a key to break the spread of the disease. However, is social distancing affordable?

It has cost us a functional economy and left the economically marginal sector unemployed and fending for basic needs such as food and shelter. As hard-hitting as it is, this has led to a mass exodus at the borders of big cities.

Social distancing amid urban inequalities

The city on other hand narrates another tale: Millions who made the city their home live as squatters, in dense galis (lanes), one-room homes and yet become the support systems for our homes and workspaces.

In India, 37-40 per cent of the urban population lives in informal housing. Delhi alone has around 3,000 such settlements, housing 5.8 million people of which 1.8 million live in slums.

We often talk about ‘vertical compact cities’ in the context of making services and public transport more accessible and forget about ‘compact settlements’, that is, informal areas, urban villages, slums etc with compromised infrastructure provisions — that witness horizontal growth as a result of urban dynamics.

These are the areas where most service providers of our economy can afford to live. It appears that practicing distancing for service takers and service providers are not the same, with it being the city’s responsibility to provide for all.

One infamous area for its narrow crooked lanes and puzzles of concrete blocks — also Asia’s largest unauthorised colony — is Sangam Vihar, right opposite my office. Sangam Vihar houses one million people with a density of 1.4 lakh people per kilometre.

If this is not surprising enough, the area is also one of the identified COVID-19 hotspots in Delhi. While density alone isn’t deadly, it sounds grievous when considered alongside available heath infrastructure of 1.05 beds per 1,000 people.

Despite drastic steps taken during the early stages of the outbreak, a large section of people tested positive in Delhi and an assessment revealed 73 per cent of 84 identified containment zones are such dense settlements.

Emerging travel patterns

Space, traffic, pollution that were a city’s concern for decades, have taken on a new dimension now. It’s certainly time to rethink ways of living and going out to earn a living.

City planners have been advocating mass transport like metros along with last mile connectivity in this context.

This essentially means planning an interconnected network of all transport modes along with walkability and non-motorised transport (NMT) networks to provide accessibility to public transport to people in all areas, but a look at the urban scape of Delhi’s most dense settlements or urban villages, however, brings out the grim reality of how these areas lack a decent street to walk, let alone be an interconnected network of last-mile connectivity network.

Pooja lives with her five-member family in a one-room house in Delhi's Zamrudpur area, two kilometres away from where she works.

Despite the fact that Zamrudpur falls within the metro influence zone, it is not pedestrian-friendly and the stone-filled irregular lane in the area doesn’t allow cycling either, forcing her to walk.

Pushpa, a domestic help, lives in Govindpuri, one km away from my home. She was too scared to leave her home to collect her salary and yet maintain social distance in the bare minimum walking space her colony has.

Anup, a vegetable vendor, was barred from entering with his cart inside colonies he usually goes to. He is thus, forced to deliver orders on foot. This has not only increased his daily trips, but also his probability of coming in contact with more people.

My supplies reach home as someone manages the supply chain while taking more risks. Rakesh, a delivery executive, says that while he is happy that he has a two-wheeler, he says he is still forced to walk one kilometre to reach home, due to a lack of wider streets in Delhi's Khirki extension area. In all these cases, a lack of basic street space increases risk exposure.

This is the silent majority that needs to be heard. The problem here is real and hence, the solution should be more significant.

According to the 2011 census, 40 per cent of trips generated in Delhi are on foot and cycling, with auxiliary transport modes — including autorickshaws, Gramin Seva vehicles and e-rickshaws. They become the prime modes for transport in areas devoid of metro services and adequate buses.

These transport services grow informally based on perceived demand and often operate on unplanned schedules and overloaded capacities.

Due to its unplanned nature, this segment often escapes the thumb-rules of planned systems.

In 2020, while we are at juncture of newer challenges in transport, I think COVID-19 has given us the right opportunity to sit back, observe and perceive mobility as a factor of social inclusiveness.

It is perhaps the right time to go back to the basics, that is, walking and cycling. It not only gives freedom to move, but would ensure distancing, keep people physically active and also keep a check on per-capita carbon footprint.

Rethinking mobility needs

A study on 9 / 11 terror strike and the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome disease outbreak mentions that — of the many changes after crises — one definite pattern that evolved was travel by road.

European countries and Taiwan showed a decline of public transport ridership as people avoided it to take precautions. Similarly, in the case of the current pandemic, the shift from public transport was immediate and visible.

Reports, in fact, show soaring demand for cycles in Bogota in Colombia, the United Kingdom, New York and Philadelphia in the United States, Mexico, Ireland, Germany and China. Countries like Australia and Ireland saw unprecedented cycle sales.

The World Health Organization on April 21 too recommended riding bicycles and walking, in new technical guidance on commuting during the COVID-19 outbreak. Post-lockdown, Milan in Italy and New York have ambitious plans to reconfigure road space relocation from cars to walking and cycling.

In Delhi, while one might witness a more visible dependency on private vehicles, the city cannot afford to make vulnerable, the majority living in informal areas and dependent on walking and cycling.

First, our cities definitely need to invest more on walkability, with NMT infrastructure operating not only around metro stations, but also in areas devoid of them, in order to build a livable city.

Second, there needs to be more investment in urban transport data generation as the key to address transport systems in a more inclusive and holistic manner, including planning for auxiliary modes of transport as well.

Data analytics is said to be the future for good planning and technology today has made data generation easier.

Travel data generation has come a long way since GPS was first launched by the US defense in 1978, adopted by its department of transport in 2003 and used in multiple domains, including city planning, security services, emergency services, traffic management, cab services, parking and wildlife. Global Positioning System (GPS) was revolutionised when it was made accessible by Google Maps in 2005.

Indian cities, however, have witnessed data-based applications more for Intelligent transportation system-based management, that is, traffic and parking, rather than planning, which is a preventive measure at best.

Why can’t big data be made accessible so that policy makers and planners may focus on preventive measures and area-based interventions for safe and sustainable cities?

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