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"The automobile is a very useful tool for segregating people because you can get into your own little box and not mingle with others."
-- Mark Gorton, founder Streetsblog.

Several angry questions were posed to an urban transport reformer from New York at two separate lectures in the city on Thursday, underlining the lingering resistance of some middle-class residents of the English-speaking variety to a complete public-transport oriented system for Indian cities.

"India is developing and it will be a super-power soon. How can it grow without automobiles and the mass employment the automobile industry generates?" asked a young entrepreneur who said he was setting up a low-cost car company to cater to rural India.

The question came soon after Mark Gorton, a noted urban public-transport campaigner, spoke about how many cities around the world are trying to regulate car ownership using high taxes (Denmark's sales tax for cars is 270 percent the cost of the car, for example), high parking fees while building wide pavements and cycle lanes and blocking vehicles from entering certain stretches of roads at regular intervals.

Gorton -- who addressed audiences at the National Institute of Design (NID) and Ahmedabad Management Association (AMA) at back-to-back sessions on Thursday afternoon -- sought to present the economic, social and health benefits of an anti-private vehicle policy that promotes walking, cycling, buses and rail networks.

He cited several studies, one of which showed that human relationships fared better in neighborhoods with less traffic than in areas with heavy automobile populations -- the number of vehicles on the street is inversely proportionate to the number of friends a person has because people mingle better when they have space to move around in the streets of a neighborhood, he said by way of graphic presentations.

Compared to the 1930s, New York's business district also hosts 3.70 lakh less workers and potential customers but 4.5 lakh more vehicles today because authorities renovated the four bridges that cross New York's East River to make them automobile-oriented when originally they were rail-oriented, he said.

Retailers on Times Square have seen a 50% rise in sales while retail store owners have seen a 35% rise in rent rates since 2008 when authorities decided to make the square vehicle-free, Gorton added.

Metropolitan authorities also gain financially, he said, because 'autocentric' cities spend 12%-15% of their GDP on transport and 95% of all trips by residents are by cars. In cities with multi-modal transport facilities such as Tokyo and Singapore, however, transport costs just 4%-6% of the local body's GDP while 32% - 54% of all residents' trips are either by transit (buses and rails), cycling or walking.

There is also a higher percentage of obese and unhealthy children in New York city compared to several decades ago because it is unsafe for them to play and be active on the streets, Gorton claimed, adding a large number of those supporting urban transport reforms are health professionals who believe pedestrian and cycle-friendly streets would do away with many lifestyle diseases plaguing urban residents today.

"The automobile is a very useful tool for segregating people because you can get into your own little box and not mingle with others. The US used the automobile to keeps the blacks (who ride the bus) away from the whites," he said.

The lectures did not go down well with some in audience such as the start-up entrepreneur, who said his low-cost cars would benefit school-going girls who tend to drop out because they have to meet their duties of fetching water from far-off places. Besides, he complained, if there are no cars there would be no car industries and so less employment.

Gorton suggested that the capital and energy used in the car industry could be used to manufacture buses and trains and other machines, and was soon after confronted by another unimpressed question -- how can the aspirations of millions in this fast-developing economy who wish to get off scooters and cycles and rickety buses and into air-conditioned cars of their own where they don't have to deal with the dust, noise and beggars be denied?

And somewhere from the hall could be heard a quip -- "That man seems to be anti-development!"

Mark Gorton's two lectures were organized jointly by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), NID and the Gujarat chapter of the Pan-IIT Alumni Association.
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