There is something hypnotic about being transported at high speed across the city crushed within a sea of human bodies. Zoom in and you see myriad expressions, people’s worries and preoccupations etched so clearly on their faces. The hassled employee late for work, the group of women armed with passes to go to the India International Trade Fair at Pragati Maidan, gloating over how they had lied to their bosses and mothers in law! College kids withdrawn into their own world, earphones welded into their ears. Groups of them yapping away, discussing boyfriends and profs and other stuff I no longer understand.
Zoom out and all the noise around subsides. All you hear is the rhythmic sound of the train on the track, the sound of comfort and excitement. The sound of motion, familiar from zillion childhood journeys and yet signifying another adventure, another destination.
It is impossible not to love this journey on the Delhi Metro. To me, it has come to mean precious time to myself. I read, I listen to music or I simply sit and imbibe the sights and sounds, the feel of Delhi citizens off to work, study or pleasure. It is a lively place, this train, despite some serious and glowering faces. Most of us seem to enjoy the status quo that comes with being on a train, suspended between somewhere and elsewhere. I see many lost in thought, one with themselves, introspective or simply dormant.
It is this opportunity that high speed travel offers that people around the world love so much. Many songs and books eulogise the metro experience in New York and the Tube in London has an iconic status for people across the works, even if they’ve never been to that city. The most bizarre scene in Skyfall, Bond’s latest, is the one jn which the train falls through a hole and crashes into the subterranean landscape of the tube. All who see it imagine the horror of being on a train that meets such a fate and we hate the bad guy who would want to go that to our beloved metro!
Indeed, I have come to love the Metro ride. I greet it as I would a dear friend and savour the experience each time. I remind myself that this is a gift we must appreciate, considering that only a few years ago we were helpless commuters with very few options.
Experts tell us that many of today’s urban problems are related to the lack of connections between people and their workplaces. That makes me wonder at the relationship between reactive planning and planning for the future. In India, cities are constantly playing catch up in terms of the planning process. This is so ingrained that even new urban centres make little effort to plan ahead, assuming that corrective action can always be taken.
It surprises me that employers make the choice to locate in areas that are inaccessible. By public transport at least. In Gurgaon, certainly, employers were lured by better quality and relatively affordable commercial office space, but I doubt they exerted adequate pressure on the developers and the government to deliver on access and public transport. The dependence on automobiles, largely personal cars, is unquestioned. Not much is being said about the loss of productivity as a result of ridiculously long and stressful commutes to work. Not to mention the cascading effect on the lives of employees in terms of less family and leisure time, etc. People end up feeling ‘disconnected’ in many ways, not just in terms of access between home and work.
Does this mean cities should not permit the development of office space except along planned transit routes? In today’s urban scenario in India, this is nearly impossible. Developers will respond to the growing demand for space and governments will play catch up for many more years. But it is possible perhaps for new urban extensions to plan transit for the next couple of decades so that future development configures itself around it. This is happening to an extent in the case of the Delhi Metro. Transit oriented development is a sane choice for future and Indian cities must introspect and make it happen. In the interests of sustainability, resource management and sanity!