Congestion on major roads has increased eight-fold between 1984 and 2008

Being on the road in the city is a never-ending experience. The rapid growth in the number of private vehicles and the associated traffic congestion has ensured that an average Chennai resident spends nearly 14 days on the road every year just on the way to work and back.

Things are set to get worse because of a lack of adequate policy intervention and a failure to shift enough motorists to public transport, say experts.

What used to be called “peak hour” traffic has already become a “peak period,” says R. Sivanandan, Transportation Engineering Professor at IIT-Madras. “There are multiple peak vehicle flows on major arterial roads during both the morning and evening rush hour. There are just so many vehicles on the road that it takes many hours after the rush hour to clear the backlog,” he says.

For example, over 1.8 lakh vehicles ply through Anna Salai every day, which is three times the capacity that the road can take. The level of congestion on major roads has increased eight-fold between 1984 and 2008, says the CMDA's Chennai Traffic and Transportation Study. In the same period, the average number of vehicles per household increased from 0.38 to 1.16.

“The volume-to-capacity ratio on most major roads is 1.2, when it should ideally never exceed 0.8,” says P.T.Kesavan, a retired Highways Department Chief Engineer.

“The government must start actively discouraging single occupancy cars. Car owners must also be asked to show parking space before they buy a second one. More one-way systems could also be introduced to deal with congestion,” he says.

The city pays a huge collective economic cost because so many residents are forced to spend so much time on the road, says Raj Cherubal of Chennai City Connect, an NGO working on transportation issues.

Based on a study done in July 2010, he says that the city loses Rs.3 lakh a day because of congestion at one junction alone (Gemini Circle), taking only the fuel cost into account. “That doesn't even include the health and stress cost,” Mr.Cherubal says.

Extrapolating that to the 276 signalised junctions in the city, the figure comes to over Rs.8 crore a day. “Congestion also brings down the attractiveness of public transport. If I am going to be stuck on the road, I might as well be in my air-conditioned car than a bus. What is really troubling is that nothing is being done about it. There has been no study on signal optimisation or the need for changes in road geometry,” he says.

N.S. Srinivasan, former Director of the National Transportation Planning and Research Centre, says that city planners in most Indian cities have failed to evolve equitable and efficient transportation networks.

“It all comes down to how much of the existing traffic can be diverted to mass public transportation. Proposals such as the monorail can help. Existing major arterial roads must be supplemented. Only an elevated system such as the monorail can cover areas where land acquisition is not possible and unlike buses, will not add to capacity on the road.”

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