Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Master's Voice

Last evening was an absolute revelation. It was almost like I was being treated to a most impressive personality saying the exact things I have been wanting to hear. The occasion was a lecture organised by the ITDP (Institute for Transportation and Development Policy) at the Central Lecture Theatre of the IIT (Madras). I had received an email from one of my friends saying this was not to be missed - as the exuberant championing by the speaker of a cause that was close to both our hearts was a joy to behold. The space near the venue was also supposed to hold a sort of display of the projects currently being worked on by ITDP. The lecture was supposed to be from 6 to 8 in the evening, so I went there at 5.30 to give myself enough time to lap it all up. ITDP, along with like-minded partners (Chennai City Connect, many senior people in the Chennai Corporation who had been shown the light and were glad to participate, etc.), has taken on the task of making large parts, if not eventually all, of Chennai accessible to pedestrians and cyclists (and wheel-chair users!); and the `display' showed their amazingly transformed visions of T.Nagar, parts of Egmore and Mylapore.

Finally around 6.30, we were all told the lecture was going to begin, and we trooped in to `CLT'. The proceedings were flagged off by the Regional Director (India) of ITDP, a young woman, who introduced the speaker (between efforts to set right the erratic computer projection system). The speaker was Enrique Penalosa, the current Director of the Board of Directors of ITDP. (He had earlier served terms as President of ITDP, as well as Mayor of Bogota, Colombia.) The woman (Shreya) who introduced him, described him as the spirit of ITDP who inspired all of them.

The moment the man came to the poodium, it was clear why she said what she did. He positively bubbled with his fervour and enthusiastic espousal of the theme of how we ourselves should claim our own cities, and work towards ensuring that our city spaces were shared democratically. The cyclist and pedestrian have as much right to the city roads as the automobile driver. He gave chilling statistics of how many people/children had been killed by automobiles within the first 25 years of their entry on the American landscape. He pointed out that 40 years from now, Chennai's population would be 400% of what it is today. Realising that Bogota was headed the same way as Chennai is today, he used his good offices as Mayor to introduce a Bus-based rapid transport system by reserving a wide central strip of city roads solely for the use of these buses. So you saw traffic in the extreme lanes resembling giant parking lots while the central lane saw buses whizzing by compltely unfettered. As he rightly points out: A bus carrying 100 passengers must have as much room as a 100 Mercedes Benzes with one passenger each!

He also correctly pointed out that the most favoured cities were the ones which had the most public spaces, parks and pedestrian spaces to offer, and which had attractive pedestrian facilities near their water bodies. The proliferation of malls is because they are the only places where there are wide walking spaces for people  - with baby strollers or wheel-chairs!. He showed such public open air spaces in Copenhagen, Paris and New York (where you could enjoy the distinguishing special features of these cities - as against the universally isomorphic copies of Reeboks showrooms). He showed photographs of  areas which had once been infested and controlled by drug dealers/users in Bogota - before and after he had transformed them to beautiful pedestrian-friendly places. What you need, first and foremost, are good, wide and usable pavements. These words were music to my ears. It felt like a parched throat being offered the most delicious nectar. When can my lip taste  it?

Finally, a sour note to end this `feel-good' story. The projection of the carefully prepared presentation was visible for only about 25% of the duration of his talk. The `systems people' kept walking up and down with no tangible results. If we were able to see the 25% that we did, it was because poor Shreya spent the entire evening holding the two sides of a connection precariously held together by a piece of masking tape which is at least a few years old, by the sight of it. That this should happen in `the great Indian Institute of Technology' - pretty much like the music system at the Music Academy, one of the prime auditoria used in Chennai's world-famous music season each winter, would emit one of those ear-splitting shrieks peiodically - was embarrassing and infuriating. As my friend Raj (who initially alerted me of Penalosa's lecture, and about whom I wrote in the post `A glimmer of hope' in this blog) said at the end of the talk yesterday, we should be ashamed of ourselves!

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