Cities, Cars and Buses: The Modern, the Ideological and the Urban

[This post is a response both to Aarti Sethi’s post on the BRT, as well as to Aman Sethi’s posts recently and this one earlier and as well as to some of the comments it generated.]

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.]

5 thoughts on “Cities, Cars and Buses: The Modern, the Ideological and the Urban”

  1. Dear Gautam,

    Thanks for this post. Many things to think about at length. Just an initial response. One of the things I find most interesting is how you open up this discussion about the “public”. To paraphrase from your essay, one of the things you gesture to, profitably, is the way in which the modernist imagination of the city as totality brings with it a foundational violence, but also, precisely because the city is conceived as a social unity, however contested, it meant that utilities etc had to be thought of on a city-wide basis. Therefore mass transit systems, water/electricity/sewage provisions, public parks, social housing.

    But this “public” has always been contested. So the evictions, demolitions and the clearing of land along the Yamuna to build the Common Wealth games stadium, the selling of land in the cities under eminent domain to the DMRC which then sells it to Reliance and Sahara, the clearing of shops around the Jama Masjid are all done in the name of the “public”. Now obviously we all know who and what constitutes this “public”. So we could say that the land cleared along the Yamuna should be used to build low-income housing. It can be a fantastic architectural experiment by the city. Float a tender, invite submissions and get really imaginative, low-cost housing solutions. But somehow river-side views are to be reserved for the elite out on promenade. Anyway….

    But my question is not one of masking alone, where private or sectional class interest masquerades as public interest, and so all we can do is make this apparent through a statistical game. And this is actually how even Aman, for instance is forced to argue where he has to say that since 62% of commuters take the bus, the “public” ire against the BRT is in fact the loud screeching of the privileged upper-classes. This is of course absolutely true, but is this the only way we can mount our arguments when we speak of this “public”. The ways in which the definition of “public” has been whittled down from some supposedly all-inclusive point in the past…

    Now, this “vision” or some version of it also lay at the heart of the Nehruvian planning exercise. And by now we are familiar with the critiques of this process that Solomon Benjamin, amongst others, have made. The question of course is how are arguments to the “public” to be made today?



  2. hi, myself manoj and i am giving a comment after personal aweful experience with me today itself.

    my english would not be upto the standard but you will definately understand i m trying to say.

    today i left from home (chirag delhi) to reach lajpat nagar market but after waiting for 40 mintues one non-ac route no 522 bus came (i need to change the next bus from andrews ganj) which is already full, we are around 20 peoples who want aboard the bus but only 12 – 14 people make it because first driver stop the bus before earlier the expected place of stopage.

    as i m not abe to run and do acrobatic stuff (i got my injured in accident while coming from office after doing night shift from noida to delhi, i m not not able to walk properly and my speed of walking is slower then a 5 yr child). so i become a spectator only to see the bus passing by side in front me.

    the people who left behind is one uncle who aged more then 55yrs, one aunty who having child around 3yr old, one uncle who using walking stick to help himself to walk and aunty with him.

    at red light a person was requesting to driver to open the doors and let the other people come inside. first there was enough space to get in all of us but driver didn’t listen at all.

    other thing which was disturbing was the LED display for bus proposed timing, now i heard the all the DTC buses is equiped with GPS system but they signage was showing 13 minutes waiting time when i was come to the bus stop and till when i left the bus stop to go back home.

    other important thing is the frequency of route no 522, there is so much crowd and users who use this route to their day to day commutting but govt didn’t act yet after so many requests sent to them to increase the frequency and no of buses on this route.

    419 and 423 route pass 5 times (AC, Non-AC) infront of mine before 522 comes.

    I think the whole idea of BRT is simply how to eat the public money. we can all the words which are sysnomous of curruption, bad management, negelance.

    i hope this will change for alteast where this plan is proposed.


  3. Hi,

    This is tej prakash soni

    I work at Greater Kailash Part-2 and every day i come from bhajanpura to chraag delhi.

    I leave the office around 7:30 P.M.

    actully i go to I.S.B.T.(Mori Gate) and i wait for Bus No. 423 but i am so surprised .

    The Route No.423 AC/non Ac Buses so Poor Servises.

    Some time 3 and 4 Buses comes together but mostly this route no. Bus arrived on the chirag delhi Stand 1 and 1/2 Hours late.

    Yesterday(15/3/10) I was waiting for Bus no. 423 i had been waiting for this bus for 7 P.M. and Bus came around 8:30 p.m. 1:30 hours late.

    I think DTC Department are eating public money .


  4. Excellent piece, Gautam.

    I was recently reading Peter Norton’s “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City”, which is a history of the conflict between “motordom” and other street-users in American cities in the 1920s. This was a time when automobile ownership was fast increasing – very similar to the situation in India today. My thoughts upon reading this book, I find, were very similar to yours.

    Norton traces three “technological frames”. Pedestrians still saw streets as public spaces, which is what streets were before automobiles began claiming them, and they disliked cars because of their danger. Engineers looked for efficiency – they disliked the tendency of cars to take too much space and preferred streetcars for their efficiency in throughput. Motorists wanted, more than anything, freedom, even at the cost of rebuilding the streets for the purpose of the automobile.

    America spent decades trying to appease motordom before transportation planners and engineers realized that this was impossible. Planners then went back to the old engineering philosophy of traffic control (now called TDM) for which they found justification in the theory of market failures. In other words, they still sought efficiency. Don Shoup, the parking guru, for instance, quotes Garrett Hardin as support for his argument against free parking.

    But even this view does not quite see streets as public spaces. It was the traffic control engineers who first removed street vendors from American streets – on account of efficient pedestrian movement. And even now, the New York Street Design Manual, the bible for sustainable-transport people, and full of recommendations for bus lanes and cycle lanes, has only passing references to street vendors (and no mention of the homeless).

    So we must ask ourselves how we might make the fight for BRTs and cycle lanes a fight for reclaiming the public spaces that streets are meant to be.

    On a related note, here’s a discussion paper I wrote for the Kaohsiung Share/Transport Conference – “Are streets meant for travel alone?


    1. Thanks for this Kartik – will certainly take a look. I think the point you make about even progresive planning still being unable to look at the street as anything but a single use, pedestrian site and imagining it clear of vendors is a critical one. I imagine a lot would be gained by seeing models that have brought vendors into planning but not in the tired “hawking zone” way — Have you seen the work of Caroline Skinner and others in Warwick Junction in Durban, South Africa? Worth looking up for something that tried to do precisely this.


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