Madhav Pai, Building cities with sustainable transport for all

“On the 8th of April 2002, I heard a speech that deeply inspired me and forever changed the way I think. Enrique Penalosa, the ex Mayor of Bogota spoke of his vision to build cities for children’s happiness and not for automobile’s mobility. He shared with us his incredible journey to make this grand vision a reality, during his 3 years as Mayor. As a recent graduate from the UC Berkeley transport engineering program, the talk made a strong impression. It challenged much of what I had till now accepted – especially how the choices we make about how we move around our cities directly affects the quality of our lives in those cities. Most significantly, it instilled in me a sense of restlessness – a need to return to my country and do something to change the unsustainable path of India’s urbanization”.

Madhav Pai 1
Madhav Pai at The Leaders Speak Series

Madhav Pai grew up in Mumbai. When he was 10 his school playground was taken over by a giant building and he along with his friends were left to do physical education classes on the school roof. During his teen years, the play areas around his apartment slowly became parking lots. “The zeitgeist of the 80’s and 90’s strongly equated cars with development and we accepted that losing open spaces and playgrounds to expressways and flyovers was the inevitable price to be (ungrudgingly) paid for progress” reminisces Mr. Pai. But hearing Penalosa speak about creating open public spaces, pedestrian promenades and public libraries – and how it was all possible if one made the right choices by building transport systems that move people and not cars – was a game changer for him. It made him believe change was possible. “Five years after hearing Penalosa speak, I did the unthinkable – against most common sense advice, I quit my job in the US, and moved back to try and ‘be the change’, instead of just thinking and talking about it.”

This was how deeply he was impacted: In 2007, Madhav Pai took on the challenge of setting up EMBARQ in India. He opines “Our vision was bold and expansive – a world where affordable, healthy and environmentally sustainable transport is available to everyone. I committed to delivering measurable outcomes in at least three cities – it was not a commitment based on a logical analysis of our fledgling organization’s existing resources, but rather a commitment born of our belief in the vision and the possibilities it inspired. We started out with two laptops and a small budget.” His office was a desk in his parents’ home, and “parties went from being entertaining social events, to opportunities and places to convince like minded friends to join me at EMBARQ India.”

Madhav Pai with Maharashtra CM
Madhav Pai with Maharashtra CM

EMBARQ has come a long way since – through five cleverly designed initiatives (Scaling Bus Rapid Transit, BusKaro, RickshawRising, Raahgiri and Safe Access to Mass Transit) the 40+ member their India team has catalyzed real outcomes nationally and in 15+ cities across the country. Some notable outcomes include iBUS bus rapid transit in Indore, Raahgiri branded car free Sunday mornings in 9 cities, Big Bus reorganizing public bus network in Bangalore and rickshaw rising to support autorickshaw entrepreneurs.

iBUS bus rapid transit in Indore
iBUS bus rapid transit in Indore

“Rapid urbanization is an inescapable reality for India. By 2040, 40% of India’s people (i.e. an additional 300 million people) will call urban India home. Indian cities will expand. We could easily ape the west and repeat their mistakes: building cities for cars instead of people, losing interactive accessible public spaces and playgrounds to parking lots. Or we could divert the 18,000 crore investments in transport infrastructure over the next 20 years into intelligent interventions in transport and urban planning. And help cities to build playgrounds instead of parking lots, to build cities that become legacies for our future generations to proudly inherit instead of burdens incapable of providing for their needs and aspirations.” This is the future Pai dreams of, a future he believes is possible, and this is what inspires him to carry on the great work.

Madhav Pai is Director EMBARQ India and also Director (India) – The WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, World Resources Institute. He is a Civil Engineer from Mumbai and holds a Master’s Degree in Transport Planning from University of California Berkeley.
Watch the Leaders Speak Series – Madhav Pai, Director (India), Sustainable Cities, WRI

In conversation with Madhav Pai at the Sustainable Business Leadership Forum Summit, 2014

Making Big Ideas, WRI 30th Anniversary Launch