MIND THE GAP
An investigation on the idea of last mile connectivity
On a Sunday evening, end of last year, I had managed to arrange a press pass – one of the few perks of an independent journalist – to attend a conference on mobility solutions in the capital city of the country. The conference was the usual ones, a lot of dapper dressed human beings discussing and giving talks on the chaotic and unorganised transport sectors happening just outside of those close doors.
Among most of the topics projected on the screen, one special emphasis that seemed to garner a lot of attention and proposals was that of ‘last mile connectivity’. A term adopted in the mobility sector from the networking discipline.
Over formal presentations and offline discussions, the delegates discussed strategies such as introducing feeder buses; public – private partnership ventures for cab services, investment in 51 new e-rickshaws; better facility for NMV (non-motorized vehicular) services; improving cycle paths to even bold statements such as 'smart city is about providing last mile connectivity'.
As I overheard the members representing top transport organisations in the country, I realised the gravity of the matter - mobility solutions are a top priority among 60 countries in the world. Even the World Bank states: 'The urban poor make up a city’s ‘captive walkers’ but since this group has the least resources, it usually has the smallest political voice. It is critical to create a safe and equitable city where people are able to access high-quality, affordable transport.'
Realising that this issue could potentially be an important issue to research upon, I decided to venture beyond the closed doors and speak directly with the ‘captive walkers’ of the city to get a first-hand impression on the subject. With already a skewed understanding in the strategies of the top-down approach, I approached the bottom-up with one question in mind, “What problems do you face reaching your home or workplace?"
Over the next couple of weeks, with an identity card hung around my neck and audio recorder strapped around my wrist I stood at different public infrastructure junctions – the metro station, the bus stop, the railway platform posing this question to individual subjects and group travellers, whose response in a nutshell are the following excerpts:
"There is no proper bus service from my home to the place I work, I have to change buses or be dependent on my husband" said a house help.
"The bus service is erratic and usually does not arrive on time, I get late often" echoed a group of white collared service professionals.
"The auto rickshaws have their own say, they never seem to agree to go where I want. They also ask for extra money, it is irritating, especially early in the morning" quipped in a few college going students.
“The road is full of potholes and the pavements are not repaired” emphasised an elderly gentleman.
"There is no place to walk" to which a few other health enthusiasts elaborated, "There is even no place to ride the cycle. Neither we can ride on the pavement and most times it is dangerous to ride on the road."
I did not limit these interrogations or findings just to the streets but also carried it over informal conversations and casual meetings with friends over a drink or some coffee, and most of the times these informal voices reciprocated the street. I partially concluded that most of the infrastructural strategies I heard in the conference were indeed in tune with the problems of the daily. Only to be derailed of my reportage, when suddenly, I posed the wrong question or so as I thought. Instead of enquiring the problem one faces, I casually asked "How do you reach home from here?”
For me, the question was a mere change of routine, but the response was vastly different as the middle-aged man replied with a smile "I will buy the vegetables and pick up the milk and get back. It is what I do daily." It left me slightly quizzed the reply, as I realised that the ‘how’ in the question was not merely one that reciprocated a commute but rather a journey. The following weeks, I went back to the same public transit points – the same metro station, the bus stop, now with an open ended question that these 'captive walkers' with a slight prompting and prodding engaged differently.
"Most days I will just walk home, but on someday I will take a detour to drop at my friend’s place, just for a while”
"Actually, this is the time I smoke a few cigarettes", laughed one teenage girl and continued, “usually, at home I don’t get a chance to smoke and so I stop with my other guy friends at the tapri and smoke.”
"I, I don’t do much, I go straight home. But every day I must squabble with the auto guys. It is a daily routine. I am such a regular that most of the banter is just for fun. Even the hand pulled rickshaw guy knows me."
"My son loves chocolates. So, I make sure that I do stop by at the nearby general store to pick up a few before I head home, after work."
"In my work place, headphones are banned, so I try and groove as much as I can before I reach office" elaborated the same white collar professional whom I had met a few days back. Yes, he had his earphones that day as well, I remembered.
Only direct questions would not be enough to reveal all the how’s reaching, I thought to myself and went on a voyeuristic spree over the next few days and followed a few faces from where the city transport system ended up to their point of destination. One of them would regularly visit a sweet shop, have some and pick up some. The lady would quickly plug in the headphone and make a call each time she boarded the rickshaw. The rickshaw rider knew her destination – a few metres ahead of her office – maybe she wanted a few extra minutes on the call. The group of children from school, would spend a few minutes just watching across the playfield and as a pattern would walk up to house of the first friend. then the second and eventually the last would reach his house. All these faces were breaching the last mile – not as a problem – but by a personalised interplay of interactions with the city.
As an analogy, this personalisation reminds me of the kids that I noticed getting off the school bus every afternoon. The last step of the bus is typically around 40 centimetres higher than the grade of the road. When I followed the stops that the bus made along the length of the road, I saw some kids very carefully place their feet on ground, one of them would always take the leap and while the child with that green colour bag would just raise its arms instinctively to be carried out of the bus. I thought to myself, if I was a technical professional working behind closed doors of the city – my focus may have been to find a way so that the 40 centimetres of space would allow a child to easily get off the bus – but then what about the child? Would it have tamed and formalised the child’s behaviour – not giving it the remotest chance to express?
As of today, I don’t have a conclusion to the issue but, I rest my case here. What I have gathered covering the last mile is that between the city infrastructure - where investments are rightly to be poured in and the personal space of a commuter – i.e the home or workplace – the destination is an informal undefined gap. A gap that is filled in by every individual through investment of emotional interactions of the personal self with the city.
This gap neither belongs to the city nor the individual but to the collective of actions, memories, patterns and nuances - all translating into an emotional experience. What would happen if this was to be filled in with formal order? I am not quite sure. Will the experience be limited? Can this gap remain informal and organic with basic human safety concerns addressed? What is 'access to all' - experience or infrastructure? I don’t have answers to any of these, because as of now I really don’t mind the gap. Do you?