Sunday, April 19, 2009

Post-modernism & transport planning

Oosterwolde, Netherlands

by Sameer Sharma
Economic Times

The emergence of postmodernism as an alternative to modernism has useful lessons for Indian policymakers. Modernism, in the words of David Harvey, “entails a ruthless break with any or all preceding historical traditions” and the west during the pursuit of the “High Modern” project completely disassembled existing historic structures because all historical social systems were perceived to be inherently backward, which held back progress; therefore, had to be abandoned. On the other hand, India never completely let go of its past and the “revalorisation of tradition” has once again made India a wonder for the western mind, in the way described by A L Basham.

A product of Enlightenment, the modernist project rests on the underlying notion that laws of reality objectively exist and by applying scientific principles these can be discovered and mastered to promote human welfare. Hence, modernism searches for general theories and universal laws, disregarding culture and context. On the other hand, a paradigm shift occurred with postmodernism, which tries to understand reality by looking for culture-specific characteristics and unique local conditions.

Similar trends are visible in urban planning, which has veered away from a “Fordist” approach to create technologically efficient urban forms, such as mass suburbia, “international-style” towers in inner cities, and auto-dependent neighbourhoods to recognition of urban diversity and complexity.

Accordingly, Corbusier’s concept of a house as a “machine for living” and claim that a “city made for speed is made for success” has been replaced by Lynch’s “good city form”, Boyer’s search for a “city of collective memory”, and Calthropian human, as opposed to machine-based, planning-scales. Postmodern urban sensibility, directed towards “pluralism, a search for character, urban identity, unique features, visual references, creation of landmarks”, provides a basis to design innovative and inclusive India-specific urban policies and one example is the application of post-modern principles to transport planning and traffic engineering.

Western transport planning is based on creating “traffic zones” to achieve consistency, conformity and predictability in auto and pedestrian movement. Roads are categorised into a hierarchy of road types, suitable for various functions, speeds, and traffic volumes (e.g., national highways, neighbourhood roads). Furthermore, there is segregation between traffic and pedestrian networks on roads.

The principles of categorisation and segregation were operationalised by the west during the last 75 years. Commonly, Eugene Henard is considered to be the progenitor of modern traffic engineering, and Holroyd Smith introduced these principles to the US, which were later codified by Arthur Tuttle and Edward Holmes. Segregation between traffic and pedestrian networks was first tried in Radburn, New Jersey, and the separation principle was further developed in the Buchanan report, Traffic in Towns.

Undoubtedly, such “traffic zones” are required for the exclusive use of vehicles on highways, but recent postmodern practices in Europe are also looking at roads as “social zones”. Unlike traffic zones, social zones integrate car and pedestrian movement. The combination of traffic with pedestrian movements, children’s play, and social activities is based on the “woonerf principles” developed by Niek de Boer and Joost Vahl in the Netherlands. Similar postmodern concepts were also experimented in the UK in the “Home Zones” programme.

Traditionally, transport planning is based on the 3Es — enforcement, education, and engineering. The common belief is that traffic will flow smoothly if traffic rules are enforced, public educated, and roads upgraded to universal standards. On the contrary, woonerf principles envisage streets to be social zones.

For instance, the city of Christiansfeld, Denmark used “ambiguity and urban legibility” in street design to reduce high death rates on the town’s central traffic intersection. Instead of erecting warning signs, road markings, and traffic signals, Bjarne Winterberg and the engineering firm Ramboll removed traffic signals and road markings. No mode of transport was given priority and pedestrians, buses, cars, and trucks used eye contact to negotiate the junction.

Surface treatment, lightning columns, and junction corners were squared up. The purpose was to make the intersection resemble the centre of the town or to create a public realm. Expectedly, the number of killed or seriously injured (KSI) during the last three years was reduced to zero, moreover, traffic backups were reduced. Compared to junctions having traffic signals, ambiguous junctions prevent accidents, reduce delays, and are cheaper to construct and maintain.

Shared space is another woonerf principle that is applied to transform busy traffic intersections. In Friesland market town of Oosterwolde, different types of traffic intermingle giving an impression of chaos and disorder, in fact, traffic negotiates the junction using eye contact and care for other types of transport. No state regulation or control is visible and traffic movement depends on informal convention and legibility.

Living in an urban environment in which kerbs are used to prevent interaction of pedestrian activity with carriageway and painted lines show places humans should walk and cross streets, people coming from the high-income countries are appalled by the absence of kerbs, road markings, bollards, traffic signals, barriers, and signs in India.

What they fail to understand is that the traffic, as it is in Indian cities, reflects the local values and cultural history of the place leading to lack of uniformity and ambiguity, requiring a different set of rules to reconcile competing and conflicting claims for safety, efficient movement, and the quality of the built environment. In this setting, real improvement in traffic congestion is only possible by using contextual designs, based on postmodern ideas, to influence traffic speeds and driver behaviour.

The author is an Indian Administrative Services officer. Views are personal.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Rama,

That was illuminating. A few years ago a team of urban designers came from the US to SPA to promote 'New Urbanism' which is 'post-modern urbanism'. They had prepared a detailed presentation on the virtues of 'unsegregated' traffic. However, the day before the presentation, they had visited Jaipur for the first time in their lives and were (naturally) awestruck at the mix of human, vehicular and animal traffic on its congested roads! They graciously admitted "you guys have it all here already and there is no need for the lecture"!

Unfortunately the contemporary planners in India are still stuck in the 60's US mode of 'segregated landuse and traffic'. They badly need to update their education.


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