What big India can learn from tiny Lucerne

In our mad rush to emulate the Chinese juggernaut we are ignoring the lesson that smaller and more successful cities can teach us


R Swaminathan | November 9, 2012

You know a city takes public transportation seriously when it houses one of the world’s most comprehensive transport museums. Not many would have heard of Lucerne. It’s in Switzerland and the baby sister of Zurich. It’s smaller than an average Indian megapolis. A sense of proportion is necessary when comparing cities and drawing lessons from one and implementing it in the other. Otherwise, often enough, one ends up comparing apples and oranges. To put things in perspective, Lucerne has a population of around 80,000 people. The bustling western suburb of Andheri in Mumbai has 4 million. The extended clusters comprising the larger Mumbai agglomeration have 22 million people. Switzerland has only 7.8 million people, which means that Mumbai has over two and half times its population.

The logic of acquired wisdom prevents the comparison of a monster truck with a nifty small car. The underlying assumption is that big and small cannot learn from each other.  But then wisdom, like records, is meant to be shattered and overthrown. Indians are not used to the idea of small and self-sufficient cities. Smallness has come to acquire a negative connotation by being compared with pettiness and narrow-mindedness. The expression ‘small town mentality’ is of particular significance. The implication that small is insignificant has led to a collective Indian psyche that equates big with progress. The Indian elite has not only internalised this mentality, but has actively perpetuated it through media and policy-making tools, converting it into more of a thought process.

Scale is often mistaken for quality, both of life and development. India’s envious obsession with China and its mega-projects only fuels this mindset to an incendiary boil. China and India are two of the world’s most populous countries with a large proportion of the population still struggling to make ends meet. Both have a bitter colonial past, which has informed a large part of their global outlook. Both want to develop fast and catch up with rest of the world. The logic of catching up necessarily requires a big leap forward; sort of a big bang of empowerment and amelioration that will skip a couple of steps in the development cycle. Unfortunately, that proverbial big leap has been exclusively tied up with the idea of mega-projects and gargantuan schemes.

Some leaps, no doubt, require large schemes, like improving the rural health landscape through the national rural health mission (NRHM). But some do not, as the Amul story so amply proves. Sometimes many drops do form an ocean. China and India have a different political structure. While the Dragon Kingdom can pretty much bulldoze its way with its people, as it has with the Three Gorges dam project or the expansion of its high-speed railway network, the Indian elephant cannot and, more importantly, should not adopt the Chinese ham-handedness.

In the near future India is going to be predominantly urban, as would China. In fact, India currently has the fastest rate of urbanisation in the world. It’s estimated that by 2050 over 60% of Indians would be living in urban centres. Access to a quality public transportation system will be the crux that will define the overall quality of life of an urban citizen. The Chinese seem to think that the way to tackle rapid urbanisation is to lay out massive cities that can accommodate up to 30 million people and connect them with large and integrated transportation networks. It’s an approach that requires massive infusions of capital and a quick roll-out. More critically, it needs a singular decision-making body that can manage – or steamroll when the need arises – dissent on complicated issues of land acquisition, subsidies, tenders and contracts.

With an iron grip of a single-party rule, China does it with élan. Not surprisingly, India wants to emulate the Chinese scale and speed of execution. It’s something worth looking up to. But the problem arises when the Indian elite expects Chinese singularity and linearity in the Indian decision-making process, which has to take into account the pulls and pressures of different interest groups in a democratic set-up.

The underlying basis for such an expectation is the supposition that only monolithic social and economic projects can bring about growth and development. It’s an insidious logic that straightaway sets up a recipe for failure. India can achieve scale provided it delinks it from a monolithic definition of size. Such a decoupling will also help it achieve speed of execution. Scale has to be redefined as the capability to network parts of the whole to work in a synchronised manner. It’s not a new principle. It was recognised and perfected by the late Dr Verghese Kurien, and it transformed the dairy sector in India. It just needs to be transplanted to the realm of urban development and a public transportation network. This is where the small city of Lucerne can teach big India more than a few lessons.

The first lesson is in urban transport economics. The cost of setting up a public transportation network is high. The establishment of any public transportation system, anywhere in the world, is a capital cost that is rarely recovered. The sustenance, maintenance, expansion and refurbishment of that network, however, are always a recurring cost. How a city funds and manages this recurring cost defines the quality and accessibility of its public transportation system.

Let’s take the case of Mumbai and compare it with Lucerne. The financial capital’s suburban railway commuters pay 7 paisa per km for a second-class season pass, which offers them unlimited travel on their designated routes for a month. The first-class commuter pays 25 paisa per km. The average cost of a second-class season pass for a month in Lucerne is 100 Swiss Francs (SFr). One SFr is approximately Rs 55. The pass in itself does not offer unlimited travel, but allows the holder to buy tickets with a discount of up to 50 percent. An average Lucerne resident spends close to 450 SFr every month on travel. That’s close to 25,000 in Indian rupees.

At first glance the amount appears exorbitant. But this is where the lens of perspective has to be brought in. Liases Foras, an independent non-brokerage real estate research firm, says 98 percent of flats in Mumbai cost a minimum of a crore of rupees. The remaining 2 percent cost between Rs 25-50 lakh. An average Mumbaikar earns Rs 4,86,000 per year and shells out almost 25 times his annual salary to get a roof over his head, spends one-third of it for a small car and yet spends, on an average, only Rs 1,500 per year on train travel (the cost of monthly second class pass from Churchgate to Andheri). It is just 0.3 percent of his annual salary. In contrast, the average annual salary of a Lucerne resident is around SFr 45,000, which is approximately SFr 3,700 per month and half the cost of a small sedan. Yet the Lucern citizen spends over a month’s salary on public transportation. The relatively higher cost is reflected in the state of the supporting infrastructure, right from platforms, bus-stops, ferry stops, integrated sign boards, information desks to the quality and upkeep of the rakes, buses and ferries and their timely functioning.

The second lesson to learn from Lucerne is on evolving and implementing an integrated city development plan (CDP) by involving the citizens and interest groups alike to look at sustainable solutions. The core proposition of Lucerne’s CDP is the pedestrian. The pedestrian, in short the citizen of Lucern, has the right of way and every single public transportation solution, from footpath, roads, zebra crossings, railways stations, ferry points and bus-stops, reflects that philosophy. The footpaths, for instance, slope at just the right gradient to seamlessly merge with the road, thereby making it extremely friendly to the disabled and the elderly. Similarly, cycling is actively encouraged with community cycle stands in all localities, where people can borrow a bicycle, and dedicated cycling lanes all across the city. Such a people-centric thought-process is visible in every minute detail of the public transportation system.

Sustainability is a real concept, but often stagnates only as a buzzword. It’s here that Lucerne imparts its greatest lesson. In the early 1970s, the city council realised that the old trams were proving inadequate for the city. They thought there were only two options of either discarding them completely and replacing them with high-capacity buses or purchasing newer and faster trams. Both required massive infusions of capital. When residents of the localities were consulted for over a year on open public forums, a third approach emerged. It involved retrofitting the old fleet of buses with an electric engine and hooking them up to the existing tramlines. Additionally, new electric buses were bought.

Not only was it an out-of-the-box solution, but it also saved the city close to 60 percent of the proposed capital outlay. It was immensely successful and paved the way for other Swiss and European cities to follow suit. In close to 40 years of its existence, it has been refurbished a few times, the last being in 2003. Mercedes-Benz was given a long-term supply and maintenance contract. Despite the high-capacity buses being over a decade old, they are as good as new. In contrast, the low-floor buses introduced in Delhi at the time of the 2010 commonwealth games are already coughing and spluttering. Mumbai is no better with the less than five-year-old King Long buses literally coming apart.

The third lesson to learn from the small Swiss city is the specific way in which technology is being used. In India the multimodal transport system has not moved beyond the conceptual stage. The system is predicated on a seamless integration of multiple public transportation options. Put simply, a person should be able to travel by any means of public transportation on a single ticket. The first specific use of technology is in its ticketing system. In Lucerne, a ticket or a pass can be bought for a specific destination, which is issued for a day and up to a month. Each ticket/pass is bar-coded and coated with a readable magnetic strip. It is dispensed by a machine that has a touch-interface of a route map. Dispensers are scattered all over the city. This ticket not only automatically opens the doors of trains, trams, buses and ferries, but also allows you to unlock bicycles stored in the community stands. The second specific use of technology is in the manner in which the varied transportation fleet communicates with each other through GPS and transmits that information on a real-time basis to the bus-stops and stations. The arrival and departure of buses, trains and ferries can be marked to the second. Large multimedia screens inside the buses, trains and ferries show route maps accurate to the last metre.

The fourth lesson that can be learnt from this city is the way agencies and companies coordinate with each other, while never shifting the focus from pedestrians and citizens. There are close to 400 companies and institutions, small and big, which are directly and indirectly involved with the city’s public transportation system on a daily basis. The absolutely efficient manner in which they coordinate with each other is mind-boggling.

I was witness to road repair work in Paulusplatz, a quiet leafy part of Lucerne just next to the famous St Paul’s cathedral. A small pothole, less than a feet wide, was spotted by a resident who called up the toll-free number that is prominently displayed. In 20 minutes an entire crew came and inspected it.

Within the hour, the crew had gone to every single house and explained to them politely what they are going to do and apologised to them, in advance, for closing down one lane. The surrounding area of the pothole, up to four feet on all sides, was dug up. It was then refilled with three layers of high-grade bitumen (polymer modified binders) and then smoothened over to mesh perfectly with the rest of the road. In all it took them less than three hours. In contrast, every monsoon the municipal corporation of greater Mumbai (MCGM) spends close to '200 crore in filling up potholes in such a slap-dash manner that they unravel without fail in the next monsoon season.

So what can an increasingly urbanised India do? First, it needs to decentralise cities and make municipal wards financially and politically autonomous. Such a step will allow them to build up internal capacity, map out their specific requirements and float global tenders for transportation networks. Second, it needs to de-link recurring expenditure from the capital cost and allow wards to come together to decide on a viable tariff structure. Third, technology has to be upgraded and CDPs have to necessarily look at the implementation of a multimodal transport system. And finally, long-term service level agreements (SLAs) drawn up by all the wards should be made mandatory for any agency, public or private, that is involved in the provision of city services.

India will do well to heed the two pieces of advice given by Colombian politician and former mayor of Bogota Enrique Peñalosa. For the uninitiated, Peñalosa transformed Bogota by implementing a highly effective bus rapid transit system (BRTS), something which Delhi has so spectacularly muddled up and Ahmedabad has so graciously adopted. Here’s the first gem: “One can find out how democratic a city is by the amount the space given to its pedestrians.” And, this is the genial politician’s second one: “A great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.” Buried deep within these two simple sayings is the roadmap of imagining a democratic, sustainable and environmentally friendly urban India.



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