At a Crossroads in India

An Indian street


By David Robertson. 

The world’s cities are growing at an unprecedented rate.  As countries get richer and the world becomes increasingly interconnected, people want to live in cities. Cities bring together people, cultures, businesses and jobs.  With more diversified economies, people move into cities because they offer new opportunity.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in highly populated countries like India.  According to the World Bank, 32% of India’s population is concentrated in urban areas, compared to 83% in the United States. Although 32% doesn’t seem like much, Delhi and Mumbai are already comparable in size to New York City.  Can you imagine what it would be like it the U.S. had two New York Cities?

Economic expansion and the rapid urbanization that follows is not just a hypothetical in India, it is one of its most pressing issues the country faces today.  A 1% growth in India’s urban population is comparable to adding another Los Angeles Metropolitan Area to India’s map.  India’s transportation network is experiencing massive stress from this shift.  Not only are cities racing to find the newest solutions to fix commuter trains lines, metros and light rail systems, they are also beginning to reevaluate the design standards for the vast network of urban roads that connect people within a city. 

Road design is not something Americans think of until it fails.  As we drive, we rarely analyze the width of our lanes, the heights of our curbs, or the design of our intersections.  Yet in India, road design is nearly non-existent.  Aside from a clearly defined path, roads often have no lane lines, extremely high curbs, and little in the way of markings. This apparent apathy towards road design is really a product of history. As a traditionally rural country India’s road design fits perfectly with rural standards, but is ill equipped to handle the millions of people that are flooding into India’s cities.

Roads seem like an odd place to start.  It is a hard argument to make that roads should be fixed before many of the other problems India faces, but roads are how we experience everyday life.  They are how we travel to school, work, and play, and without them cities simply do not function.  A system of well-designed roads will result in cleaner air, increased walkability and boosts to commerce and economic activity in areas around streets.  Roads are the veins of cities that make them live. 

India is at a crossroads. It is lauded as a center for research and development and for its impressive growth in recent years. Advances in medicine, agricultural, and transportation technologies have spurred development at a rapid pace.  However, India is now faced with the immense problem of advancing its infrastructure in wake of the massive urbanization caused by a diversifying economy.  Without fixing roads, India’s economic engine will grind to a halt, but if it can implement smart design standards, the road ahead may be clear for India to continue growing.  

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