An American in India, advising cities on how to avoid traffic hell.

Mark Gorton is a bona fide transportation evangelist. Founder of OpenPlans, a technology and advocacy organization, and publisher of the multi-city Streetsblog Network, Gorton has a deep interest in urban planning and transportation.

His main focus is what might be old-fashionably referred to as alternative transportation – public transit, bicycles and walking. These are three areas most of the U.S. hasn’t really excelled at over the past half century, but Gorton’s hoping to help change that. He’s been making presentations and giving talks recently about rethinking the place of the automobile in our growing cities, and how transportation planning can better accommodate walking and cycling. This, Gorton argues, makes for a more livable city. These talks, like Streetsblog and the work of OpenPlans, are mainly focused on the U.S., which clearly has some problems to fix. But now he’s also taking his advice abroad, starting in India, where the urbanization of people is happening in lockstep with the motorization of the cities they’re crowding into.

To have an American come and tell you how to make your cities more bike- and pedestrian-friendly might seem a little preposterous. But it actually makes sense; what Gorton can provide to a place like India is first-hand American knowledge of what not to do.

“The message that I’m bringing is trying to point out to India some of the lessons we’ve learned the hard way in the United States about what automobiles do to cities,” says Gorton. “And particularly as India is rapidly motorizing, these lessons are very important.”

Now home to more than 1.1 billion people, India has been urbanizing rapidly in recent years, a trend that’s only expected to continue. More than 900 million new urban residents are expected in India’s cities by mid century. To accommodate this growth, the country is updating its infrastructure and making way for cities that will need to handle even greater populations. As the economy modernizes, the country’s road networks have been a major focus of infrastructure spending.

Gorton, who lives in New York City, has cautionary tales to share with India as it embarks on this path. This week he's wrapping up a trip to a number of Indian cities, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad. Along the way he’s been sharing his experience with car-dominated American cities, and also the story of New York’s recent transformation into a city that more heavily plans for and appeals to cyclists and pedestrians.

“It’s physically impossible to fit the automobile into a large dense city,” Gorton says. “Cities that have tried to do that – and there are many, many of them all over the world – have all ended up pretty unhappy at the end of the day. And the cities that are happiest are the ones that have taken steps to limit the automobile.”

He’s been meeting with city officials and locals to talk about how India’s cities can think differently about their transportation futures. As they grow, these cities should try to avoid merely ceding all of their public realms to cars, says Gorton. Though new roads are needed in these cities, they don’t solely have to accommodate cars at the expense of non-motorized street users. But some cities may already be moving in a developmental direction that skews roads toward a car-dominated transportation sphere.

“It’s amazing how much stuff is under construction here,” Gorton says via telephone. “And you can see that a lot of these cities, unless they really start changing their policies, are going to be absolutely swamped by car traffic. And it’s already happening, to some extent.”

India's roads are already traffic nightmares. Road rules are under-used if known at all, and the crowding and mix of users, which include everything from cars, trucks, and buses to pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles, scooters, rickshaws, and cows, makes the streets chaotic and often dangerous. Red lights are a loose guide, and one-way streets are rarely that.

“It is mind-bogglingly unsafe,” Gorton says, especially for pedestrians. “There’s no such thing as a crosswalk. There’s no such thing as traffic stopping. Pedestrians run across the street and it’s their job to get out of the way of the cars, but it’s not the cars’ job to not hit them.”

“A car is, among other things, just a safety device because you’re walled in from the chaos around you.”

The car is also a status symbol, one showing success. Gorton blames Western influence for this. But he also says that in talking with people in these Indian cities that there is a strong aversion to experiencing more of the traffic and car-dominated problems many cities in the U.S. – and increasingly China – are facing.

“India’s just got so many more people and it’s so much more dense that as much as they want the car, that ‘American, everyone drives’ model is physically impossible,” says Gorton. “They’re aware that Chinese cities are now choking on traffic. And, really, Chinese cities are a much better analog for what’s going to happen in India.”

The fast pace of growth in China and the developmental path of its cities are strong lessons for India. Gorton says that what’s happening in China, and what has been happening at a slower pace in the U.S., is being watched carefully by policymakers and city leaders in India.

“They see what traffic does to their cities, they see how their city is getting less livable every year. And as much as they personally want a car, they don’t want their world to be this really congested traffic hell,” says Gorton. “Among a lot of the policymakers and elected officials and senior people in government, there really is this sense that they have to do something else.”

Gorton says he hopes his trip and talks will help India's cities to think more carefully about the policies shaping the transportation infrastructure that will rapidly come online in the next decade. He says that if they do, they can prevent the Indian cities of the future from becoming what Chinese cities are becoming today, and what U.S. cities have been struggling to shift away from.

Photo credit: Parivartan Sharma / Reuters

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