This week, the city has had something new to talk about. Our favourite whinge, the Metro-induced traffic, took a backseat for just a smidge, as the Anna Arch took over.
For a long time, I commuted every day, from Kilpauk to Amabttur Industrial Estate, where I worked. Every day, I would pass the twin structures that serve as a landmark to anyone who wants to find their way into Anna Nagar. Ask any auto driver, cop, or a roadside vendor: “Anna, Anna Nagar 4 avenue?” and they will immediately guide you from the arch onwards. They’re big and white, and the moment you go through them, you feel better. Long, leafy trees envelope you and the city seems cooler.
Getting to the arches though, is the difficult part. At every traffic light before and after it, there is a pile-up. It doesn’t matter what time of the day it is, whether it has been raining, or whether it is a public holiday: jam there invariably will be. For about twenty minutes, all you do is twiddle your thumbs and watch as autorickshaws make a mad dash to edge towards the front of the signal, motorcycles squeeze through impossibly narrow gaps between cars, and bus drivers lean on their horns. Every day, I set out from home 50 minutes before I was due in office, for what was barely a 12 km journey. Every day, I arrived in office with my ears ringing from the cacophony on the roads.
The proposed flyover is meant to ease the congestion between Poonamallee High Road and Anna Nagar 3 avenue. As any commuter on that stretch will testify: it is needed, and quickly.
Every Chennai resident will admit that traffic is a mounting problem. Old-timers in the city will tell you that even five years ago, it wasn’t so bad. It’s become such a constant complaint that two strangers on a bus can instantly bond over the subject.
Today, I commute from Kilpauk to Mount Road every day. And what should be barely a 15-minute drive invariably takes me nearly 30.
The metro rail, proposed mono rail and the several flyovers in progress, are meant to be attempts at curbing this problem, both by decreasing the number of vehicles on the road, as well as by giving those driving more space to move in.
In a few instances of late, these proposals have encountered roadblocks, often over landmarks.
When metro rail sought to acquire property it needed on Mount Road for its construction work, the city was up in arms as the heritage P Orr and Sons building was in the firing line. Anna Arch was to make way for a flyover, and was hailed as a landmark in the city.
Don’t get me wrong: these are heritage buildings and iconic structures. A city that does not appreciate its past is a city without character. And without doubt, they need to be protected from constant neglect and relentless assaults.
But how much really, do we as residents enjoy our heritage? When immobilised for over twenty minutes on an arterial road, do we admire the contours of a beautifully- designed structure or do we wait in impatience for the light to change?
This is not intended to be a heritage vs. development debate – it’s never that simple. But I do wonder if for most of us, the possibility of cherishing our heritage is often overwhelmed by the sheer chaos prevailing on the roads.
Isn’t more breathing space – on the roads and the footpaths – perhaps the first step to appreciating our city better?
The way things are now, it would seem both heritage and development – and by that I mean infrastructure the city is crying out for – get a raw deal. While one is either neglected or destroyed, the other is delayed, making the original problem – traffic – even worse.
This is admittedly a dicey stand to take. I have immense respect for those who fight tirelessly to conserve our history. Our history is what defines us, it gives meaning to the present. Besides, we are not the first to face this issue; cities across the world offer lessons in ways to balance the two.
Sometimes though, it’s hard to decide what is more important – a hundred-year old shop or a public transport system the city so desperately needs.