In 1970, Henri Lefebvre wrote: “the invasion of the automobile and the pressure of the automobile lobby have turned the car into a key object, parking into an obsession, traffic into a priority, harmful to urban and social life. The day is approaching when we will be forced to limit the rights and powers of the automobile. Naturally, this won’t be easy, and the fallout will be considerable” (The Urban Revolution, 19).
Talking about the BRT corridor in Delhi, its worth remembering many other urban clashes – Hausmann’s broad and open ways that opened up Paris in the mid 19th century, Robert Moses in New York, and Corbu’s (failed but still so real) plans for just about everywhere outside Europe. Hausmann’s boulevards were about a new kind of street for a new kind of urban formation: the boulevard was part of the birth of the industrial, capitalist city, the city of Baudelaire’s Paris and the “Eyes of the Poor” – the city of the current version of the modern that still shapes/haunts us today.
Hausmann built his new roads not just for the “car” but for what it stood for: for movement of goods, for capitalism, and for the city that would generate wealth. He also built it for control – so that the millitary could enter and block the worker’s protests and barricades that defined and defied Paris in the first decades of the 19th century. The story of the automobile, therefore, is as much the story of the road. In fact, the true story is perhaps precisely that of the road — of the road as part of the urban, as infrastucture, as a public good. Of the road and of all the stories it forecloses: the dominance of exchange value rather than use value in the urban, the demise of the notion of a collective infrastructure, the changing fight over what constitutes public goods. This is not a battle just about cars: it is a battle about the notion of any and every kind of “public” — public space, public goods, public housing, the common good, a collective aspiration, a shared experience as a society, a city, and a people. The BRT vs Cars debate is, fundamentally, about urban citizenship — by what rules do we share what we collectively consume?
Manuel Castells once defined the city as being fundamentally about the act of “collective consumption.” What made the city different from the village was that, in the urban, a shared infrastructure that was collectively consumed defined social relationships and inter-dependence despite difference. New Orleans, Baghdad, Bangalore and Dubai – each for different reasons – challenge the ideal of public infrastructure or collective consumption in cities today. It isn’t that earlier cities didnt have inequity in distribution or access to infrastructure — but the ideal remained that public infrastructure should be provided city-wide. Hausmann’s Paris was the city that could be drawn in one master plan, linked by roads, sewage systems, mass transit. Modern planning begins at this moment when the city is seen as one abstract whole – both an act of reduction and violence, but also a paradoxical unity. That ideal is what the BRT vs cars debate is about. This is why the fight over water privatisation, integrated townships, apartment cities in gurgaon with private powerback, and RWAs that run colonies like small countries with parallel governments and a judiciary that uses PILs to order evictions are the same fight as the erasure of the cycle lane from future BRT expansion.
The BRT represents a different kind of infrastructural investment – it tilts collective consumption to the consumption needs of the majority. It represents a concrete infrastructural, tangible claim to a different distribution in our collective consumption. I think its critical that we recognise the attacks against it in various guises that are emerging — Aarti’s post begins precisely that. We can also learn from BRT implementation in cities across the world. Almost all of them [Chinese cities excluded] have been hugely contentious. Think of Bogota under Mayor Penelosa when he built the Transmileno, arguably the model for BRTs in developing world cities across the world. He was a peculiar peculiar man – hugely undemocratic, but self-fashioned as the people’s mayor [I dont think the people had a choice in the matter]. You can love/hate him all you want, but he forcefully rammed his way past Bogota’s bureacracy [which rivals Delhi’s anyday in madness, elite capture and corruption] and made kilometres of bus rapid transport and bike lanes, and public parks. He also created a government land bank — buying large hectares and claiming them as government proporty before expansion [think of buying in Ghaziabad now for future worker housing]. He used this land for parks, which is another matter, but in principle it was again a claim for the city’s land as use value, as public to be collectively consumed. What happened to him? he was nearly impeached, and slammed across the board for it [and for other things that he deserved slamming for, but that’s another story about the curiousity that is authoritarian leadership towards just and pro-poor ends]. my point only is that the fight is inevitabe and, in fact, welcome, because it is a sign that it is challenging the status quo, and doing so through [and not just in] the urban.
What is our role in this ideological battle? My fear is that not enough is being said, in either the alternative or mainstream press [for what those distinctions are worth] that claims the BRT as a welcome shift in infrastructural investment, far more than the Delhi Metro. We have to link the BRT to larger battles to determine public interest both within and beyond the city – to displacement, to PILs, to the right to PDS goods distribution, to other public goods and shared infrastructure: to questions, in short, of equity and urban citizenship. Claiming the road as a public good links the battle of street vendors [who claim the road as a place of work], the homeless [a place of sleep and shelter], pedestrians [a space of transit] to the building of a BRT.
But we also have to remember that this is an urban battle and ask: what does that allow us to do and how does this location create a new political terrain? The urban has a contested place within marxism, but many marxists remind us repeatedly that it can be a uniquely powerful site of protest and challenge to prevailing dominance. That in its organisation of space, precisely because of the forced inter-dependence of classes around a shared infrastructure, it allows for particularly urban political possibilities. I think we must see the BRT as a moment that allows us to enter that debate and shift its terrain – to broaden its problem space and widen its political horizons.
[PS: just to ramble on a little further in this post-that-is-really-a-comment: the other challenge is to link the BRT to land use. It is not enough to think about transit across long distances when the need to transit across long distances between spaces of work and residence for the working poor is not accidental or given condition, but an active result of poor [non-existent?] land use planning that does not allocate work-residence zones in the city with any consideration of where workers [are forced to] live. The existence of these new corridors will not solve the fundamental problem of the mismatch between jobs and housing the underlies a de-industriliasing city that is trying to become “world class,” or about a political culture that allows this mismatch to persist and, in fact, rewards it as “good governance” in an age of financial rather than physical capital. more on this in another post, perhaps.]