Since January, the Chennai Traffic police have booked about 1.5 lakh cases for parking violation and road obstruction. The reason behind this renewed drive, Additional Commissioner Police (Traffic) Shakeel Akhter explains, is to keep the roads free and improve mobility. While such efforts bring in temporary relief in short measures, the overall objective to improve traffic conditions within the city remains elusive.
The average speed of vehicles within the city was a poor 25 km per hour in 1971. After 37 years, in 2008, it had slowed down further and averaged at 20 kmph. In 1986, many key roads were found to be carrying traffic to their capacity. In 2008, according to the second master plan, the roads are overflowing.
The planners have been trying to address this issue since 1968 when they first undertook the comprehensive Madras Area Transport Study.
Since then, more than 10 plans and studies have been prepared but not with much success.
The government is understandably concerned and recently constituted a high-level committee to look into this issue.
This is in addition to another government committee that is also looking at ways to improve mobility within the city. The problem, as experts point out, is not the dearth of plans but that of the approach and implementation.
“Efforts so far have been on widening a few select roads or construction of flyovers. These are only short-term solutions,” says T.Anantha Rajan, a retired professor of Urban and Transportation Planner. He thinks there are large gaps in the macro planning of the city that are causing the problems.
The plans brought up so far emphasise that the existing city is limited by its high density and limited road network. Instead of concentrating on all the development within the city, it would prove worthwhile to encourage an orderly growth around the city, the plans suggest. In 1975, three new towns and six self-contained urban nodes around Chennai were identified for this purpose.
In 1998, a plan for new Chennai west of Maraimalainagar on 13,000 hectares to accommodate 20 to 25 lakh people was also proposed. A circular railway line connecting Thiruvanmiyur and Villivakkam was envisioned as early as 1987, as a part of larger rail network plan, to improve connectivity and encourage rail-based travel so that the volumes on road and overcrowding of buses can be reduced.
“All the attention in terms of development has been only to the city, leaving the suburbs unattended. Even a basic well-formed road network has not emerged properly. How can we improve the city without improving the region around it? This is going to turn out as our future nightmare,” says Dr. Rajan.
“Not pursuing the plans is one problem; frequently changing them in an ad-hoc manner is another. Look at the fate of the new second master plan for Chennai. In the last one year, five changes have been already made overruling the objections,” points out a planner with the government.
Apart from the poor implementation of big ideas, smaller but important details on ground are also affecting the traffic flow.
“Parking norms for buildings are on the lower side. We get away with that because we take the streets for granted and use them for parking. On-street parking is one of the reasons for reduced road width and the congestion that results,” Dr. Rajan points out.
According to Mr. Akhter, the multilevel parking proposed in important areas would help address on-street parking issues, but the possible impact of a new building on the larger traffic flow on its immediate area is what needs attention. “We have written to the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, asking them to consider the overall traffic flow of an area before approving large building complexes. We are told that since the master plan has been already published this could no be incorporated,” he says.
Raj Cherubal, coordinator, City Connect, an NGO working on improving traffic and transport conditions in Chennai, concurs with the need for an area plan to improve mobility. “It is at the area level that we can work out the details of feeder roads, links between bus stops and places of work and organise pedestrian flow.” Chennai is yet to develop a comprehensive area plan of this kind.
“Improving public transport is what will deliver the long-term solution,” says Mr. Akhter, summing up the situation.
“In the last three years, we have added 12 lakh vehicles to our roads. We are finding immediate solutions to mange this explosion of vehicular growth. The future, however, lies in developing a successful public transportation system,” he says.