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Road to hell
We celebrate every newspaper headline proclaiming yet another month of "record auto sales" as one more sign of a booming economy and a prospering middle class. And indeed, it is. But there's also a crisis brewing on our city roads - driving has become a nightmare in most parts of urban India;travel time has grown not by minutes but by hours and all the new flyovers and bypasses are unable to keep pace with the explosion of traffic...Is there a way out?
Bangalore's vehicles are up almost 7 times since '96, from 6 lakh to nearly 40 lakh. Chennai's travel speed is down to 20 kmph. Delhi has a staggering 65 lakh vehicles on its roads now. And a formidable 5 lakh vehicles are added annually in Mumbai. Policy makers are fumbling for solutions and there's lack of perspective. A traffic safety expert TOI-Crest spoke to calls India's transport planning an area of total darkness. Are draconian 'congestion pricing' laws adopted by cities like Oslo, Milan and Singapore the answer? Or is there hope within as Ahmedabad's experiment with BRT shows?
Traffic snafus in Indian cities are often a wag's delight. In Bangalore, one of India's most gridlocked metropolises, many joke that the most surprising thing about traffic is that it's still moving. But other cities have little time to wallow in schadenfreude. The dark side of India's economic boom has left most of us staring at a rather grim future, with 65 million vehicles now jostling for space. City traffic statistics make for dour reading too. Bangalore sees regular snarls with its 39 lakh vehicles (up from just 6 lakh in 1996); its larger neighbour Chennai's average travel speed has dropped to 20 kmph, largely because of its 30 lakh vehicles;Delhi's peak-hour traffic woes, despite its wide roads (on account of a staggering 65 lakh vehicles) are rather infamous;Mumbai's woes are only likely to get worse as about 5 lakh vehicles are being added every year in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region;neighbouring Pune grapples with 28. 5 lakh vehicles, and Ahmedabad, once a synonym for traffic chaos, but now a poster child for improvement, accomodates about 20 lakh vehicles on its roads.
Experts add to the gloom, confirming what all commuters suspect: city administrators appear to be fumbling for solutions. Worse, few recognise the need for a coordinated approach to urban transport management. N Ranganathan, a veteran city planner and transport researcher, bemoans this fact. "India is stuck in road-building mode, not road or traffic planning, as required, " he says.
Rohit Baluja, a Delhi-based traffic safety expert, goes further. He slams transport planning in India as "an area of total darkness. There is no proper transport policy in India, one reason why we lead the world in road accident fatalities, " a number he puts at 1, 28, 000 a year.
Ideally, planning would entail developing multiple transport options, which would, in turn, be based on clear 'land use' proposals in Master Plans that cities draw up regularly. But, as an insider reveals, land use is considered 'dynamic' in India, with unauthorised and unplanned development often making transport projections go haywire. Besides, transport plans are also usually developed after land use has been specified and not conceived of before starting development, which is the global norm, points out Baluja.
Moreover, as every expert TOI-Crest spoke to stresses, those options must encompass various modes of public (buses, taxis, Metro, suburban and light rail systems) and private (cars and two-wheelers ) transport. They must also make ample arrangements for non-motorised transport options (cyclists and pedestrians mostly) in a country where over half the population still walks. Except, this isn't really the case in our cities, where engineers appear to be engineering solutions only for cars.
CAR WINDSHIELD VIEW
Major Indian cities report trebling of vehicle numbers over the last decade. Ranganathan even quotes a projection that India's vehicle population would touch a staggering 450 million between 2025 and 2030.
The crux of the current problem though, as Yash Sachdev of leading transport consultancy RITES puts it, is that 15 per cent of road users drive cars, but they take up 70 per cent of the available road space. "Transport plans have to solve everybody's problems, not just one segment's, " he says. But city engineers appear to be easily led astray. They've mostly built grand, costly facilities - flyovers, express carriageways et al - largely for car owners over the last decade. Experts say this lopsided approach is what lies at the root of the problem.
Madhav Badami, of Canada's McGill University, terms this the "car windshield view of decisionmakers". Others agree on its inherent counter productivity, especially in India. Such an approach would ultimately bog down every city resident, points out a traffic planning consultant. He also slams many of these car-focused developments as having major drawbacks. Flyovers increase speeds only for a short stretch and funnel traffic problems into a different area, solving no major congestion issues, as many global studies have shown. Mumbai's much-ballyhooed Bandra-Worli sea link is a good example. It may have decongested the Mahim causeway, but traffic now converges on Haji Ali junction, leading to snarls.
Some cities don't appear to have reaped even such transient benefits. Bangalore has only had about six major flyovers built in and around its city-centre. Chennai has had about 10. Delhi and Mumbai, however, have had over 50 and 80 respectively, leading to some alleviation of stoppage times at many major traffic intersections.
Elevated expressways, a fad in India and China, "also don't serve any real purpose", says a government transport planning insider. He points out how pedestrians are completely neglected and often pay with their lives for what are essentially planning oversights - roads cutting through densely populated low-income areas. He rues the number of lives that were "sacrificed" to Gurgaon's spiffy new expressway before remedial measures were put in place.
Badami echoes these views and states how "in providing for high speeds for motor vehicles, access to other modes of transport become highly compromised because these projects take up vast amounts of space and require limiting of access".
Experts also point to parked cars gobbling up vast amounts of precious city space. Bangalore's DCP (Traffic) B Muthanna maintains that a major challenge for his force is manning the city's parking system, where many designated parking areas have become malls and commercial complexes erected by powerful lobbies. Pune, Delhi and Chennai also suffer similar problems. Delhi's many residential colonies are clogged with cars parked on lanes not originally meant for them. In Mumbai, its municipal body appears to be complicating matters by turning parking space under flyovers into fountains and other 'beautification' projects.
But it is in public transport, as experts cry themselves hoarse, where solutions really lie. But only if it is integrated.
TAKEN FOR A RIDE
Most people in Indian cities still walk or use various forms of public transportation. An overwhelming number (about 70 per cent) of Indian vehicle owners are also two-wheeler users, some indication that only public transport can serve the commuting needs of entire families. Yet Indian city bosses, like many of their Asian counterparts, don't appear to care. Which is largely why Hermann Knoflacher, a leading Austria-based transport expert, states that 'transport systems cannot be the means to exploit the majority of the people for the benefit of a few'. Healing us of our car addiction is the only way to heal cities, he writes.
Some cities appear to be listening, but only partially. Delhi is cited as an example of some progress, with its high-profile Metro project and separate corridor BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) experiments. But much more needs to be done.
Sachdev estimates that Delhi's NCR region needs a further "189km of Metro/Light Metro network and 365 km of BRT by 2021 to meet the demands of a populace that will swell to 240 lakh". But such development will be largely fault-ridden unless transport integration is planned, say experts.
Other cities, unfortunately, appear to be floundering. Take Metro plans. Mumbai's project is mired in various delays, Chennai's has only just begun and Pune's is a non-starter. The exceptions hold out some hope though. Ahmedabad will soon build one to link itself to Gandhinagar, while Bangalore will soon see its Metro's first phase go operational.
BRT is another story. Its implementation in Delhi was dogged by public outcry over its reduction of road space. It now appears to have changed course, something Badami condemns. Sachdev is of the opinion that BRT as a concept is 'very sound'. But various options must be considered for different cities, and traffic junction management must be planned carefully.
Ahmedabad provides a great success story here. Utpal Padiya, Ahmedabad transport boss, is rather proud that in just two years, BRT lines have seen "expansion in all directions upto 40 km, thanks to public acceptance and support, and carry an average of 1. 12 lakh passengers per day. " Numbers are expected to double in the project's next phase, one reason why other cities are also toying with BRT proposals now.
But that's exactly the piecemeal approach experts decry as being inadequate.
Responsibility for transport planning appears to fall through the cracks in India.
Baluja lists 'traffic engineering centres', which the Western world set up in the 1930s to analyse and then integrate urban planning and transport solutions. "The police do it here, " he laughs grimly. Further, all transport infrastructure construction in Indian cities is done by public works engineers who don't take long-term or holistic views of transport, add others. There is also a complete lack of coordination between whatever little transport planning and engineering that does happen, says an insider. He cites Gurgaon's "crazy" proposal for a futuristic Rs 5, 000-crore 'pod taxi' transport system as an example. This when the Delhi suburb is yet to sort out its traffic woes.
"There is no nodal or coordinating agency for transport planning, " another expert rues, and calls for the creation of Unified Metropolitan Transport authorities in states. Ranganathan says such proposals have been around for three decades and laments institutional inadequacies as a major reason for the mess we find ourselves in. He also complains of consultants who advise governments but bear little responsibility when things go awry.
Baluja is categorical that road safety is compromised largely on account of such lacunae and points to how a shocking 86 per cent of people who die on Indian roads were classified 'vulnerable' to begin with.
A complete policy reorientation may now be required, or so goes the consensus. Badami hopes urban transport planning will become more sensitive to the needs and constraints of the Indian context. "Cut India's urban transport coat according to the cloth," he appeals.
With reports from Parth Shastri, Ahmedabad; Vinay Madhava Gowda, Bangalore; Sandhya Soman, Chennai; Chittaranjan Tembhekar, Mumbai and Manish Umbrajkar, Pune
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