Urban Mobility A Nightmare In Hill Towns

It is better to earn during the lean period than in a full-blown tourist season, said Ramu, a taxi driver in Shimla. On questioning why is it so? He said, during the current tourist season, most of the tourists enter the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh with their own cars. Those who come either by train or bus find it extremely difficult to commute. It takes roughly an hour to reach from the railway station to the Lift, which connects the Mall to the Cart Road, a destination that most tourists like to visit. The stretch from the railway station to the Lift is less than two kilometres, still during the current season more than an hour is consumed because of the sheer traffic. In such a situation people like Ramu lose their business as they are able to do less work during the tourist season.

This is not just a story of a taxi driver, but every resident staying in Shimla is complaining about the traffic woes. It has become extremely difficult to commute in the town through motorised transport owing to massive flow of tourists in the city. The sweltering heat in the plains is further forcing people to camp in the hills. Sanjay Thakur, a known hotelier of the town said that after two years, the current season shows bright prospects for the hospitality industry. He said the hotels are completely sold out and there is no place left. The room tariff has also jumped almost double the original and this year has been a good season for the hotel industry. He wished there was a delayed monsoon so that the tourism industry could earn more during the season.

Traffic snarls, more tourists, more cars on the one hand are a problem for the town and its residents, on the other this rush to the town also means a good economy for the hospitality industry, for the working people and for a large section of the population, for whom this is bread and butter. However, the current model of development with spontaneity guiding the principles of city development or tourism, is not a sustainable one and has its own perils. It is high time that the major stakeholders should start working on alternatives ensuring both a vibrant economy based on tourism, simultaneously ensuring that the ecological footprint of the hills and the mountain towns is not disturbed. There is no point in adopting the principles of plains in the mountains for some of the basics of mobility.

Alternative mobility

The Shimla town has a population of roughly 200,000 but over 4.5 million tourists throng the town in a year. The number is ever increasing. It is not just that the tourists add up to motorised mobility in the form of cars entering the town, even the local population has added a huge number of cars and every year there is an addition of new cars. Replying to a question in the state assembly, Himachal Pradesh chief minister stated that the total number of vehicles in Shimla have reached 77,939. This is beyond the capacity of the road length. The road density in the town remains the same so where will they run? The mobility plan/ design driven with motorised transport in the mountain towns, particularly in Shimla has to be inverted completely ensuring sustainable form of development.

The strategy is quite vividly laid out in the Shimla Mobility Plan which was passed and approved in the Shimla Municipal Corporation during the period in which I also served the city as a deputy mayor.
The principles for mobility for Shimla town are simple: go back to the basics, i.e., promote pedestrianisation; create strong and secure public transport focussing both on horizontal and vertical mobility; ensure alternate modes non-motorised transport; create infrastructure by digging tunnels across the mountains for easy passage of people; coerce people commuting in cars, at least during the peak hours; the bottom line is: focus on mobility of people and not mobility of cars.

Unfortunately, what has happened over the years is that the Shimla Mobility Plan has not even been referred to at once and the Smart City money is used to widen the roads thus creating more spaces for cars and inducing people to buy more of them. There is hardly any focus on pedestrianisation, rather more and more roads are opened for motorised transport. Two such roads are: from Boileauganj to Vidhan Sabha and from Sanjauli to IGMC. The administration under pressure from a certain section of the people thought that this would ease out pressure on the cart road. A recent visit to Shimla shows that now even these two roads are choked and it has become a nightmare for the pedestrians to walk on these two pedestrian friendly roads.

Promote Pedestrianisation

The city still has a high footprint of pedestrians, perhaps one amongst the highest in the country. Nearly 45 per cent commute on foot and this must be strengthened by providing more spaces in the town. New infrastructure must be created for the same. Simultaneously emphasis must be laid on vertical mobility. Unlike plains where horizontal movement is the only form, in mountain towns, which are like a cone, distance travelled on top of the cone covers a far wider distance at the bottom, provided there is a vertical mobility available. Hence more infrastructure must be created by constructing more escalators and elevators.

Secure and Strong Public Transport

The public transport must be strengthened and made more secure and reliable. Most of the families do not prefer to send their children or commute themselves in buses for them being quite insecure and unreliable. The smart solutions must work there and more buses should be added to the existing fleet. Simultaneously already approved ropeways, and these should not be for joy or just for tourists, but as a mode of transport must be constructed on priority.

Coerce those who travel alone in their cars during the peak hours and ensure that there is a shared mechanism.

Why is all this not happening? There are many reasons. However, one of the reasons is that there is a multiplicity of agencies that look after the mobility sector. The traffic police, urban transport department, public works department, urban development department, city government-Shimla Municipal Corporation etc., are different agencies meant to do one single work- ensuring mobility. The parastatals under the state government, hardly give an ear to the city government, the city government is seen to be lavishly spending money against the basic principles of urban mobility on creating more spaces for cars and so on.

It is high time that a city transport utility is created under the city government which is managed by the city government that has all the arms of governance. This could just be a beginning for a long path to trudge. Else, what we are witnessing in Shimla, in fact in all the mountain towns, is nightmarish development, which is neither desired nor sustainable.

Former deputy mayor Shimla. National convenor, NCU, National Coalition for Inclusive & Sustainable Urbanisation.

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