Exclusive Interview: An Indian in Uruguay creates awareness about road rage and advocates inclusive cities

As for children, they don’t have any space to play outside and their autonomy is severely restricted.

It's not so much about road rage but an overall car culture that prioritizes cars over people, be it in the design of public spaces, legislation or the general acceptance of noise and pollution as though they were inherent aspects of a city.

An architect and urban planner, Reena Mahajan is the founder of Studio Divercity, an international platform that offers spatial & strategic sustainable design solutions for public & private bodies. Previously based in Delhi and Paris, she currently lives in Montevideo, Uruguay where she advocates low-impact urbanism and inclusive cities.

About yourself

I have a strong background in low impact, water sensitive and sustainable urban development. In my years in France I conceptualized and coordinated urban restructuring and development projects in close cooperation with an eclectic mix of professionals across an interdisciplinary landscape. Over time I have acquired a multidimensional understanding of urban dynamics and the interrelations between housing density, transit, landscape, hydrology and governance.

Beyond the concerns of the urban form and its technical aspects, I believe that urban strategies must aim for inclusive, resource-efficient and resilient cities. This has driven me to actively participate in social projects and urban planning workshops in different parts of the world (recent workshops in Africa and Eastern Europe).

I absorb new cultures and languages easily. I moved to South America three years ago with my English husband and gave birth to a Uruguayan baby last year.

I recently started an independent practice: Studio Divercity, part consultancy and part activism.

What made you come up with the idea about Road Rage sitting in Uruguay?

It’s not so much about road rage but an overall car culture that prioritizes cars over people, be it in the design of public spaces, legislation or the general acceptance of noise and pollution as though they were inherent aspects of a city. They’re not. Cities aren’t inherently dangerous, noisy and polluting, cars are.

My new home Montevideo is a pleasant and laidback city but with an aggressive car culture. The planning norms are obsolete and public parks are often limited to isolated playgrounds surrounded by a sea of asphalt. The city lacks efficient public transport and the bus service is not used by the urban elite. Urban sprawl is widespread, with a growing trend of suburban private neighborhoods and increased car dependency.

Since becoming a mother, I became acutely aware of the hardships faced by vulnerable pedestrians navigating every street corner. I launched an awareness campaign on social media (Montevideo Reimagined) gently challenging the Municipality through an analysis of the city’s streets, traffic norms and speed limits, as well as hypothetical ‘before and after’ scenarios of some of the city’s key public spaces. I want to inspire people to reclaim street space from cars for an active street life with more bike lanes and greenery. I take heart from Paris, where just this year speed limits of 30km/hr have been enforced and 50% of the space previously allocated to cars is being transformed into bike lanes and green spaces for people. Recently I have started a new campaign on road etiquette (Montevideo Pacified) to make an impact on the community and spread my message further.

Do you think it will work in India and how?

In India, if you were to simultaneously measure the amount of public space allocated to roads & parking and the percentage of users who own private motorised vehicles (less than 5 percent), you would immediately realise just how unequal Indian cities are. Moreover, pollution and accidents affect children and poorer sections of society disproportionately. It is also a gender issue because women often use public transport and make several short care-related trips throughout the day, as opposed to men whose main travel requirements involve a linear journey to work and back. When there is one car in the household, it is often reserved for the men. Consequently women spend more time commuting and spend more money on transport than men. When women’s mobility is restricted because of lack of options or because of the harassment they face on the streets, they suffer from increased social isolation and urban poverty. As for children, they don’t have any space to play outside and their autonomy is severely restricted.

The culture of prioritizing cars over people is universal. It is increasingly being challenged the world over and has been reversed in several European countries like the Netherlands which is extremely bike-friendly. Uruguay is definitely much calmer than India but the desire for private car ownership is outstripping the authorities’ provision of public transport and bike lanes.

The fact of the matter is that when you design a city for cars it fails for everyone, including those who drive. When you design a multimodal city (walking, biking, public transport) it works for all. In today’s world, this means disincentivizing private car ownership and use, investing in high quality public transport, finding solutions for last mile connectivity and promoting walking and cycling.

The former mayor of Bogota, Colombia (Gustavo Petro) once said that “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It is where the rich use public transport.”

In India, we must start talking about Mobility, which is about moving people, instead of Transport, which is about moving vehicles. We need to observe how people move, understand the barriers they face, and cater to everyone, including those in the informal sector. We need to stop widening roads because all it does is bring in more cars and induce more driving. It’s a vicious cycle. Instead, we must break the cycle of car dependency and empower people by providing a variety of options to get around. 

Road rage in India … How do you suggest it should be addressed? I strongly believe that road rage is not something isolated. It is a symptom of a wider societal issue — the Car Culture we live in. We prioritise cars over people and normalise highway landscapes in cities. Instead of making our streets safer or expecting accountability from the authorities and drivers, we ask pedestrians and cyclists to “be safe”. Accidents are not isolated incidents; they occur in a context of bad design, high speed limits, lack of pedestrian crossings, dangerous intersections… If we want fewer accidents and people-friendly cities, we must first understand the complex ways in which road violence is normalised and excused. Most accidents can be prevented. Traffic deaths are unacceptable. Cities need to be seen as complex ecosystems. Our urban environment cannot be left to be designed by transport engineers and private developers. A dedicated, interdisciplinary and multilevel approach to city planning, both visionary (top down) and participatory (bottom up) is much needed. 

What is your inspiration?

I grew up in Delhi not expecting much as a pedestrian. I was pleased to discover a more people-centric design culture during my years in Europe, where I could walk and bike and go out at night and truly relish my autonomy. Even so, it took me several more years and not until I was faced with pushing a stroller around an extremely hostile environment for pedestrians did I fully understand how unfair our cities can be for those who are more vulnerable. My inspiration is wanting an urban environment where our children can thrive. Where they can walk or bike to school and breathe fresh air. And so my objective is to design cities for well-being (of both the planet and humans) rather than (only) for efficiency.

Number of cars on the Delhi roads has gone up. Do you think any specific speed limits will help in terms of making space for the pedestrians?

I believe it’s not just the number of cars that has gone up but also their size. If we stand a chance to humanise our cities, it really doesn’t help that SUV and pick-up car ads boast about their horsepower and invite users to “conquer the streets”.

To answer your question, lowering speed limits might help prevent some traffic fatalities but it won’t serve much purpose when the roads themselves are designed based on highway standards that encourage fast driving. Delhi’s roads and streets need to be designed for lower speeds, and imagined not just as conduits for motorized vehicles but as spaces for a variety of uses that manage to preserve a sense of place. This can be done through traffic calming strategies such as fewer lanes, wider pavements, incorporation of protected bike lanes, kerb extensions for shorter crossing distances, reduced corner radii, raised medians, chicanes, at-grade pedestrian crossings (instead of pedestrian bridges) etc. Contrary to what one might expect, these measures do not aggravate traffic congestion but instead prevent the build-up of traffic, making commuting a less hostile and more pleasurable experience for everyone, including drivers. Of course, this cannot be done overnight, but the process of reclaiming the city for its people can be kick started through what urban planners call ‘tactical urbanism’: short-term, low-cost, citizen-led interventions that help build awareness and allow for experimentation before implementing large-scale changes in infrastructure.

The campaign you have started in Montevideo — is it good for other countries in South America? I’d say it is valid for every city that currently prioritizes motorized traffic over vulnerable users like pedestrians and cyclists, and barring a handful of countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, that would be pretty much everywhere! We have certainly seen innovation in urban mobility since the pandemic, and cities around the world are slowly but surely reshaping themselves through the repurposing of public spaces, pedestrianization of streets and the addition of ‘pop-up’ bike lanes. This has required both strong leadership and a strong People’s Movement. Like me, others from Chile, Argentina and other South and Central American countries are fighting for safer, more accessible, vibrant and healthy Cities for People, rather than for cars. We can only do so much, though; change has to be driven at a local or even national government level.

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