Exchanging transport lessons between developed and developing countries: Q&A with Dr. V. Setty Pendakur, Part II
Traffic congestion in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo by Akshay Mahajan/lecercle.

Traffic congestion in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In Part II of our interview with Dr. V. Setty Pendakur, he discusses the exchange of transport-related knowledge and technology between developed and developing countries. Photo by Akshay Mahajan/lecercle.

Last Tuesday on TheCityFix we shared Part I of our interview with Dr. V. Setty Pendakur, Founding Chair of the Transportation in Developing Countries committee at the Transportation Research Board (TRB). Last week, Dr. Pendakur discussed why sustainable transport is so important in developing countries, and how TRB has worked hard to engage more participants from the developing world, primarily Latin America and Asia. This week he covers knowledge exchange and cooperation between the developed and developing world.  Read on for Part II of the interview!

How can transport lessons be exchanged between developed and developing countries?

When we transfer intellectual technology and terminology, whether we try to transfer it to India, China, Vietnam, or Indonesia, we have to be very mindful of how those countries are governed. When you superimpose the American philosophy of government, governance of transport systems, or of everything being decided by a referendum, it will not work in developing countries. What we need to do, through the TRB and research, is move towards the next systems that will retain the good aspects of a concept – sustainable transport – and implement them where governance systems are very, very different.

To put this in perspective, what’s normal and applicable in San Francisco in terms of governance is not at all normal or applicable in Beijing or Shanghai. It’s not normal in Mumbai either, even though we speak about India’s governance system being similar to that of the U.S. They appear similar, but they don’t function the same way. Their internal details and forces of politics are vastly different. For transportation, whether we want to believe it or not, as soon as you want to move from the conceptualization phase to implementation, government and politics become extraordinarily important. This is where planning doesn’t just concerns politics, but where planning is politics.

When we copy ideas from developed countries and transfer them to developing countries, we have to be very gentle and cautious as to how they are presented to people who can make them happen. We also need to understand what the implementation and finance systems are like, and that requires a lot of research. What has happened is that many developing countries, including India and China and Indonesia – three very big countries – and others like Mexico and Argentina, were essentially copying Los Angeles (L.A.). The result is that after 25 to 40 years of copying L.A., it doesn’t work. If 35-40% of the people in Mumbai walk to work today, they don’t walk because they’re choosing sustainable transport, they walk because they have no money – and no other option. Those are the people who need access to low cost transport systems in order to travel short distances.

Is this exchange of information and transport techniques a two-way street?

Developing countries are very capable of doing whatever’s being done in developed countries. In terms of design, India and China have the same highway system as the United States. However, as soon as you talk about walking, bicycling, urban street design, or transport financing – all of these are native political issues. For example, in Vancouver we pay a 17 cent tax per liter of gasoline, and it’s normal for us to pay taxes on automobiles to pay for public transport infrastructure. In the United States, that would be a very contentious issue! In a small city like Vancouver with only 600,000 people, we have more than 100 km (62.13 miles) of walkways and bike paths on the water. These are examples we can take from developed countries to Mumbai, for instance, which has a considerable waterfront. Mumbai has actually started to develop its waterfront, so yes – transferability can go both ways. We can find other examples in San Francisco, Paris, London, and many other cities, but the key issue is that more than 35-40% of people in many developing countries are very poor. We cannot hope to have successful public transport systems in developing countries if they’re unaffordable for this group. So, there are many lessons to be learned and challenges to overcome – we need to amend solutions from developed countries to make them suitable to developing countries.

One thing countries in North America and Europe can learn from developing countries is how to do more with less. They’re able to do many things with less resources than we do, and much more cleverly. We get consumed by public process, and in the guise of creating private enterprise we generate additional costs. At the same time we have to recognize that in many developing countries there is a lot of corruption and leakage in government systems. So how do we handle this transfer of intellectual technology? We need to make the implementation systems suitable for the political system in which it’s being implemented.

Switching gears – what do you remember of the late Dr. Lee Schipper, co-founder of EMBARQ?

Lee was a good friend. We go back many years now, and when I started talking with a group of friends about doing sessions on developing countries at the TRB, he was right there. His question was very simple, “Setty, what can I do for you?” He was always like that. Gregarious laughter, very contagious happiness – that was Lee. He was 5 to 10 years ahead of everybody, and a giant in his field. He was very persistent and could disagree with you extraordinarily strongly in a meeting or discussion, but still at the end of it we could go enjoy a coffee or beer happily laughing about it. My primary memory of Lee is that contagious laughter and happiness that could convince anybody – “Hey, this is a guy we should support!” We don’t get people like him every year. They come only once in a while. I was very fond of Lee, no question about it. He left a huge legacy – not just for EMBARQ, but for all of us.

Dr. V. Setty Pendakur

Dr. V. Setty Pendakur is the President of Pacific Policy and Planning Associates and Founding Chair of the Transportation in the Developing Countries Committee at the Transportation Research Board. He was recently awarded DARPAN Magazine’s Extraordinary Achievement Award for “Breaking Barriers,” an honor that recognizes a South Asian individual for extraordinary achievements as an influential leader, educator, and contributor to society who continues to inspire future generations.



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