For R. Anbazhagan, a resident of Mowlivakkam, who has never seen a bus shelter at his boarding point in 22 years, or Urvi Pradhan, an IT employee who regularly spends over two hours commuting to work, the imminent expansion of the city limits holds great promise. An improvement in road infrastructure, greater access to public transport and a fillip to their quality of life are some of the aspirations.

The Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) has already made preliminary plans to extend some of its existing routes by adding a few stages. But the experience of similar urban conglomerations such as greater Bangalore or greater Hyderabad, along the lines of which greater Chennai is being modelled, shows that the city has a lot of catching up to do.

Both Bangalore and Hyderabad have more public transit buses than Chennai. Interestingly, both the cities roughly doubled their bus fleet since 2007, which was the year when the municipal limits were expanded. With an operational fleet of just 3,000 buses, Chennai's numbers are one of the lowest in the country.

Existing area underserved

Even the existing city area is underserved, says S.A. Vijayakumar, former head of various State-run transport corporations. “Since waiting time is an important parameter for level of service, residents of suburban areas that will soon merge with the city are going to start demanding parity.”

Quoting the government's own estimates, he says at least 8,000 buses are required to provide a reasonable quality of service.

Bangalore also has a dedicated Big 10 service that continuously operate on circular routes, connecting the city centre with the ring roads. Chennai's bus service, which evolved from the tramway system of the 1930s, continues to operate along sectors.

While the operational limit of MTC has expanded over the years, bus services have essentially spread out along radials.

Gaping holes are emerging along the circumference of these radials and as the city continues to expand, many localities would simply be cut-off, say experts. To address a similar problem, Hyderabad started operating 100 mini-buses in March this year.

“Learn from failures”

Stressing that greater Chennai must learn from the failures of its smaller twin, Mr. Vijayakumar says the lack of road network within the city offers important lessons. “The last Housing Board layout to come up was Anna Nagar in 1968. Currently, real estate is having its say and whole neighbourhoods are coming up without a major road. Localities such as Madippakkam and Nanganallur, which will soon merge with the city, are classic examples.”

Between 1995 and 2010 when the number of private vehicles in the city grew by over 300 per cent, the road network remained static at 2,772 km. MTC services are operated on only around 300 km of that road network.

“Greater Hyderabad has its own extended Master Plan and we have started reserving space for public amenities such as bus terminuses and arterial roads,” says Purushothama Reddy, Director of Town and Country Planning, Andhra Pradesh.

“Population in most Indian cities is growing too fast for civic infrastructure to keep pace, but just expanding the city limits is not sufficient,” he adds.

He says that the newly urbanised areas have to be developed with a radically different vision.

Ahmedabad has been successfully implementing such a model of urban development through its Town Planning scheme. Over 63 per cent of its municipal area is made up of pre-planned layouts.

“Centres of activity”

H.M. Shivanand Swamy, executive director of the Centre for Excellence in Urban Planning at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, says that based on current demographics, most Indian cities would double in size within the next 30 years before population growth stabilises. “The outlying localities are going to become the centres of activity tomorrow. We must start building up capacity to prepare for the poly-centric cities of the future, which will have more than one city centre,” he adds.