About a fortnight ago, when oil minister Moily decided to convey the importance of public transport and the need to save precious fuel, he chose to use the Delhi Metro Rail as an example, and not the bus.

Though a large number of people still use the bus, the shining Metro has become the face of public transport and the icon of Delhi. The Chennai Metro Rail too, must be thinking that it is only months away from similarly being in the spotlight and becoming the next big success story. But that may not happen. Chennai cannot repeat the success of Delhi.

Chennai Metro Rail is a welcome addition to the city, but it does not have the potential, at least not yet, to make a significant impact and ease traffic on the roads. Expectations about Chennai Metro Rail have to be lowered, and here are the reasons for it.

The Delhi Metro Rail is spread over 190 km and serves about 23 lakh passengers every day. By 2016, when the second phase is completed, it will have a 240-km network and by 2021, it will reach 400 km, making it one of the largest networks in the world.

In comparison, Chennai, which is only 45 km long, neither has the spread nor the connectivity to match Delhi’s. But the Chennai Metro planners are optimistic. They project that passenger trips per day will reach 7.74 lakh in 2016, and 12.85 lakh in 2026. Their reasoning is that the lines run through well-developed parts of the city and connect major transport nodes. However, in their enthusiasm, they have overlooked lessons from Delhi.

In 2003, despite its plans for an extensive network, the Delhi Metro Rail had to scale down its ridership figures from 31.85 lakh passenger trips per day to 22.6 lakh. Even this figure appeared inflated in 2007, when about 65 km was completed and ridership was only 29 per cent of what was projected. Steep ticket prices, poor connectivity to stations and lack of integration with the surrounding areas were cited as reasons.

However, the critical point was that the network was not fully developed. Ridership increased as the network expanded and connected areas such as Badarpur which are away from the city centre. Delhi Metro Rail now carries more than 23 lakh passengers per day. This cannot be repeated in Chennai. The two Metro lines run parallel to three well serviced roads – Anna Salai, Poonamallee High Road and Inner Ring Road.

Second, there are no indications that this network will expand to link future growth hotspots such as Poonamallee and Sriperumbudur. The Chennai planners may argue that if their proposal for two additional corridors — Ambatur to Thiruvanmiyur and Porur to Kutchery Road — is implemented, things will improve. The fact is that the government has shelved them. Even assuming that the monorail network will substitute these projects and add to the Metro Rail usage, ridership figures will not touch the desired level.

Probably realising this, the Metro planners are pushing the CMDA to permit more built-up area along the Metro lines and thus help ridership – a move that would work at cross purposes and congest the roads.

Instead, what the Chennai Metro Rail planners should do is expand outward and reach areas where growth is rapid. As seen in the case of MRTS – where the ridership figures increased when the lines reached Velachery, connecting the suburbs is critical. The Metro has the potential to shape urban pattern and produce high-density nodes around stations. It could infuse organised development into the suburbs, something the city badly needs.

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