A fortnight ago, the Highways Department announced that work on building foot overbridges with escalators, on seven busy road stretches, would commence by April. The project has been nearly two years in the making.

The city administration's lack of attention to pedestrian infrastructure is evident from the fact that the Chennai Corporation has only five FOBs. New Delhi has over 50 FOBs, many of them equipped with escalators or lifts.

While the plan to build FOBs seems to be finally getting off the ground, there are a number of other public transit-centric proposals that are not so lucky.

It has been two years since a plan to operate mini-buses in the city was announced, five years since a Metro Rail corridor was projected to go up to Tiruvottiyur, and over a year since the government began exploring the possibility of building a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) on Rajiv Gandhi Salai.

The feasibility of all these projects has been established, but as a senior government official put it, they continue to be “under review”.

R. Balasubramanian, a former managing director of MTC, says the plan to build a BRT corridor on Rajiv Gandhi Salai dates back to 2006. “Until 2010, the Central government was even willing to give Rs.6 crore/km towards the construction of BRT systems under the JNNURM scheme. But the Tamil Nadu government could not even prepare a detailed project report. The city has lost so much because of the laxity of successive governments,” he says.

The concern then is this: while government officials as well as policy documents continue to stress that public transport has to be prioritised, it hardly translates into action.

For example, Chennai has the least number of public transport buses among any major metropolises in the country. The bus fleet strength has essentially remained the same for a decade, though the passenger volume catered to by the MTC has nearly doubled, from around 30 lakh daily passengers in 2002 to 56 lakh passengers by 2012. Currently, there is a moratorium on bus procurement and it is expected to continue until the monorail project is implemented. The official reason is that buses are causing congestion on the road.

But the BRTS study that the government initiated reveals a different picture. If Anna Salai, which is the most congested road in the city, is taken as an example, the study shows that MTC buses carry 65 per cent of all city residents who commute through the arterial road on any given day. But public transport buses occupy less than a third of the road space. Private vehicles that transport far fewer people eat up most of the available road space.

“It is true that the city is becoming too congested and too polluted, but the government's response to build flyovers to ease traffic is flawed,” says K.P. Subramanian, former professor, Urban Engineering Department, Anna University. While fund crunch is often cited for not procuring buses and implementing other public transport initiatives, the government spent over Rs.250 crore building flyovers in the city in the last five years, much of it aimed at improving the speeds of cars and two wheelers.

“Private vehicles are increasing drastically every year,” says Mr. Subramanian. Shreya Gadepalli, director, Institute of Transportation and Development Policy, Ahmedabad, says that ultimately public transport is about social equity. “Each public transport bus can displace nearly 600 private vehicles from the road, easing the enormous amount of traffic that would otherwise be generated. Chennai has missed a lot of opportunities, and each failure is enticing people to use their personal vehicles. The government has to wake up to this reality and act.”

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