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How cars made the world’s streets less inclusive

New book by Concordia professor focuses on increasing automobility in Indian cities
December 1, 2020
By Justin Dupuis

Congestion in Indian streets Govind Gopakumar: “There are commonalities with what makes our cities so vibrant and so attractive.”

Since the early 20th century, the streets of North American cities have radically changed to accommodate cars as a primary means of transportation, a trend that has slowly spread around the world.

In his new book, Govind Gopakumar, associate professor and chair of Concordia's Centre for Engineering in Society, explores how automobility has drastically changed the make-up of India’s city streets and the social impacts caused by such a radical transformation of the urban landscape.

In Installing Automobility: Emerging Politics of Streets and Mobilities in Indian cities, published by MIT Press in their Urban and Industrial Environments Series, Gopakumar dives into the governance of car-related urban infrastructure and the redesign of streets in Indian cities.

“Unfortunately, America’s dependence on the car has spread all over the world – China now has 360 million vehicles, India has around 250 million and Brazil has over 100 million – and this is causing negative social and environmental impacts, not just immediately, but also in the long-run in shifting towards a low carbon world,” says Gopakumar.

Over the years, governments have had to drastically change transport infrastructure to accommodate an ever-increasing number of motorized vehicles, which has, Gopakumar argues, slowly altered the very essence of the city street.

“If you watch a movie portraying India around 30 to 40 years ago, city streets were filled with all kinds of vehicles and people: cyclists, pedestrians, push carts, public transit. Because motorized vehicles are everywhere now — this is also true in other parts of Asia, Africa and South America – the kinds of social interactions that used to be possible on a street have drastically changed.”

Govind Gopakumar: “Unfortunately, America’s dependence on the car has spread all over the world and this is causing a great deal of negative social and environmental impacts.”

Making streets inclusive spaces

These challenges will be explored during a panel discussion with Gopakumar for the book’s launch at 4TH SPACE on December 11.

With an ever-increasing number of people sitting in their cars, streets have steadily become more dangerous for women and other vulnerable groups, street vendors have seen a negative impact on their livelihood and pollution is on the rise.

Of course, scaling back car use is an obvious way of overcoming the negative social impacts associated with motorized vehicles. But as many North American jurisdictions have shown, getting people to abandon their vehicle for walking, cycling or using public transit is challenging.

“It’s very difficult to pedal back because cities with high automobility get locked into this paradigm of transportation and important structural changes need to be made to cities for urban landscapes to move away from automobiles,” Gopakumar explains.

For any real change to occur, he says, governments need to implement mobility solutions focused on social justice and equity. Though the problems associated with automobility can differ in the Indian and North American contexts, solutions will be found when streets are seen as a place of social interaction.

“There are commonalities with what makes our cities so vibrant and so attractive, it’s their streets,” he says. “If everyone is sitting in a car, the street isn’t really a public space anymore, it’s more of a pipeline. If we want to solve some of the problems associated with automobility, we need to make city streets the inclusive public spaces they used to be and not just a place for cars.”

Register for Installing Automobility book launch at 4thSPACE on December 11.

Read Govind Gopakumar's opinion piece in The Scroll.

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