The rapid growth of cities has brought with it problems of traffic management. Vehicle population is rising fast amid broad economic development.
Desperate for solutions, cities are now putting their faith in technology. The most common efforts have been in data collection and communication. Cameras, global positioning systems (GPS) on public vehicles, and intelligent signals allow for data collection. Texting, BlackBerry-powered patrolmen, and digital message boards for realtime information make up smart-communication technologies.
This is good news, of course, but such efforts can at best hold the fort against surging urbanization. Getting a rein on things will require more than handy technology.
One area that’s receiving attention, long overdue, is the use of technology in designing a city. Existing systems focus on controlling traffic; what we need is a plan preceding that. Urban planning is a science in itself. It incorporates a number of engineering and design elements to ensure smooth flow, including percolation-friendly materials on pavements, optimal sidewalk width, and the design of junctions. Town planners are recognizing that designs of road intersections have a lot to do with how traffic flows through them. As an example, for a four-street intersection, u-turns and left turns have to be provided a few hundred metres before the junction to avoid concentration at the signal. Where two 50ft roads meet, left turns have to be segregated.
Eventually, though, we will be forced to look beyond design. The problem lies in our blindness to the housing needs of different income groups in our cities. Traffic systems of cities around the world are segueing into urban-planning with the intention of tackling congestion. Portland, Oregon, has a boundary around the city to prevent urban sprawl. The Japanese have solved the problem of escalating urban real estate cost by making land state-owned. This helps because it is usually not construction costs that are high, but land prices. London’s traffic management system depends on re-routing the flow altogether.
Technology needs a clearly articulated goal to work. It cannot synthesize mutually exclusive objectives. For example, when faced with a giant tree on a footpath, you cannot decide whether to keep it or cut it unless you know whether your overarching goal is maintaining green cover or giving pedestrians space to walk. Traffic management technology worldwide is extending beyond traffic control. What policemen in India do is only the latter. This is necessary, but not sufficient.
Ashwin Mahesh is chief executive of social technology company Mapunity Information Systems and a member of Bangalore’s city planning task force.