London’s infrastructure problems hold lessons for India’s big cities as well…

M Ramachandran, once a secretary in the Union urban development ministry writes on the city:


There are some key issues of concern to the city of London, where I was recently. Let me consider their similarity in nature to problems Indian cities face – but also the differences in approach in dealing with them between the two countries. The strike in the city’s metro system, or the Underground, which disrupted public transport to a huge extent; ongoing discussions about the desirability of having a third runway at the city’s main airport, Heathrow; the concerns of cyclists who face danger from lorries on the roads; whether metro rail fares are to be increased or brought down; rents becoming high and not all residents being able to afford houses – these are the issues that figure uppermost in discussions about cities.

Since people using the London Underground late at night have almost doubled over a decade, it is now proposed to run the trains overnight on Fridays and Saturdays from later this year. A general pay hike issue has been raised by drivers, and this got linked with the additional payment to be made for running trains extra hours. The Underground’s management says the leadership of the unions refused to respond to the proposals it made. The proposed late-night service is projected to create 2,000 new jobs, give a 360-million-pound boost to the economy, and facilitate faster night-time journeys. But the one-day strike was total – no services operated, and those who commute to work using the Underground had to try using buses or just stay at home. Those two days showed how central the regular functioning of the Underground system is to the city.

Saying that Londoners cannot continue to pay through the nose for the most expensive metro rail system in the world, one of the potential candidates for the mayor’s post – the present deputy mayor who oversees transport – promises a three per cent cut a year in fares. His claim is based on his performance of cutting council tax year on year. The outgoing chief of Transport for London (TfL) warns that such a move could put services at risk.

Mumbai metro is facing the same fare war now. People forget how pricing infra is as critical as building the infra. Should it be based on Marginal costing or Average costing ? The first choice leads to higher prices and lesser commuters. The second one is lower prices and hopefully more commuters. The conventional economic theory supports the first route but in infra setting there is a case for the second route as well.


Cycling gets encouraged in a big city like London. Work commencing on construction of a new cycling super highway could lead to delays, says an ad from TfL, which is responsible for overseeing all transport issues in the city. But cycling is not easy. A thousand cyclists were injured in hit-and-run accidents last year. Eight cyclists died on London roads this year. Of these, seven were hit by lorries. The London Cycling Campaign is concerned. They called on the mayor urging him to save lives by ending the lorry danger. The demand is that adding mirrors is not enough – there should be mandatory cameras, glass doors and sensors on the lorries.

Rent in every part of London is reported to be unaffordable for low-wage workers. Experts say the city is on the brink of a crisis and the only solution suggested is building thousands of new homes. To fix the housing crisis, which is considered the greatest threat to the capital, it has been suggested that the politicians will have to take a bi-partisan approach – or more powers need to be devolved to London city. There are lessons in all this for our big cities as well, because if affordable housing is nobody’s baby, then we will fail to address the issue properly and in time.

Well, India was once a cycling nation not out of choice but mostly out of poverty. Most people cycled not just to work but even long distance towns. Now, it is all over and leave highways, even city roads don’t have any space for either walker or cyclist. It is all about vehicles and more vehicles now. It is amazing how just at this time, west is rediscovering cycles and atleast talking about it. Being a Cyclist is back in fashion.

On housing prices and rent, well what to say? This blog is sick of saying that most of Indian  cities are just too unaffordable to live. All we are doing is encouraging speculation in real estate and huge gains for property owners over the non-owners. One just spends most of his salary on the rent and it is always going up. Most rental agreements have a clause that if extended next year, there will be an inbuilt inflation of 10-15%. So much so for lower inflation expectations in cities here. There is a reason most people just laugh off the inflation numbers in India which are just understated.

London’s problems are just a microcosm of those in Indian cities.

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