"People who own cars make life unpleasant"

John Whitelegg of the School of Built Environment at Liverpool's John Moores University spoke to Anish Gupta about Calcutta's transport problems and about why its salvation lies in improving the tram network

Published: Monday 15 September 1997

On why he is interested in Calcutta's transport problems:
I have been interested in transport and the environment for the past 25 years and have worked in Europe, Australia and North America. Three years ago, I decided to work in a situation where there was rapid growth in population and in the number of motor vehicles and very serious environmental problems. And since I have always been interested in India, I decided to come to Calcutta.

On the extent to which transport is responsible for Calcutta's pollution:
Depending on how near you are to a very busy street, you could say 50-80 per cent.

On the gravity of Calcutta's transport problem:
From the environmental point of view, Calcutta's condition is very serious. The problem is rather unusual. Even though the city does not have a large number of vehicles when compared to a developed country, almost all without exception are in a very bad condition.

On his project in Calcutta:
I work for the European Commission ( ec ). The ec is interested in helping deve-loping countries improve their environmental and transport conditions.

I am proposing a project with joint funding to solve Calcutta's transport problems. The eu , should make money available on a 50-50 basis, with half the money coming from within West Bengal. It will be a 'transport demonstration project' wherein one tram route is taken up and worked upon in great detail. It is made so efficient, reliable, clean and attractive that one proves its popularity. The route's use is then monitored over a period of about a year or two and used as an argument for spreading the benefits over the whole tram system.

Similarly, I would like to see one area of Calcutta selected for a thorough clean-up of the footpaths and the pedestrian-cycling facilities so that it is really pleasant to walk, cycle and move around.

On his belief that new roads, bridges and additional parking capacity increase private motorised transport:
Many people take such things for progress. But if you see the traffic in Bangkok, despite expensive roads, flyovers and car parks you sit in your car for three hours to travel 10 km.

On the fact that he underplays the use of private motorised transport:
Let me put it differently. Private transport will always play a part in the life of a city. The degree to which it should grow must be decided through discussion and debate. If the whole city is taken over by private motorised transport, as in Los Angeles or Bangkok, everyone suffers. Car owners also suffer a lot as they are the ones who get stuck in the traffic. Therefore public transport in Calcutta should become so attractive that it proves to be an effective alternative to travel by car.

On how one could dissuade people who like to own cars and two-wheelers:
Such people make life very unplea-sant for themselves and their children. One is exposed to benzene the most when one is inside a car. Travelling with children in a car is like being in a closed chemical box.

One reason why Calcutta wants all this is to attract multinationals and foreign business:
Business executives would never come to a city as polluted as Calcutta. They would go to Singapore which is incredibly clean. Why is Singapore clean? It is spotless because they have the strongest controls on cars. The tax on a car is about twice its purchase price. Fuel too is very expensive.

On why he lays a great deal of stress on trams in his scheme of things:
Trams are space-efficient, non-polluting and have a very high carrying capacity. The two-car model can carry about 5,000 passengers per hour per track. They are also very energy-efficient. They are the most environment-friendly mode of transport.

On whether Calcutta's tram system needs to be upgraded:
Not immediately. But there are areas which have to be improved. The overhead cables and electricity supply has to be improved, the coaches need refurbishing and the noise level has to be brought down. But the great thing about Calcutta's tram system is that its network is excellent.

Sustainable transport is something that meets the needs of the poor. But the rich have access to resources and can afford to be wasteful. On how one reconciles these conflicting interests:
An interesting analogy comes to mind. In the 19th century, British cities had no sanitation and drinking water. The poorest people lived in the most appalling circumstances. But 30 years later, every city and house had these amenities. The reason this occurred was that the rich, fearing that their own lives were at risk from the health point of view, made these changes.

The same is the case with transport. The rich still think that the car is fantastic. But when they get to the condition of Bangkok, they realise its different. They realise that their children are in hospital with respiratory diseases. In many countries I have come across the rich organising campaigns to reduce the number of cars on the streets.

On what the first step towards a less polluted Calcutta should be:
Every vehicle that belches out clouds of black smoke must be stopped and fined Rs 1,000 per day. Every intersection should have a traffic light that works. Each driver violating a red light should be fined Rs 1,000. Cars that go into the city centre with four people go free; every car carrying one person should pay Rs 50 per day. This money should be invested in the tram and metro system, and in the circular railway. These systems could be improved without the government investing even a rupee of its own.

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