Giving roads back to the people

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A Chennai road during peak hour.
A Chennai road during peak hour.

G. Ananthakrishnan

A radical shift in the way cities think about moving people is essential.

RAPID ECONOMIC growth is putting unprecedented pressure on cities, as the mobility needs of their populations rise rapidly and State Governments appear poorly prepared to meet the demand. Existing public transport systems are overwhelmed and city-dwellers are forced to depend on their own vehicles.

The Planning Commission constituted a working group for the 11th Plan (2007-12) on urban transport, including Mass Rapid Transit Systems, and its report contains pointers to the need for a radical shift in the way cities think about moving people.

While the Centre has created the framework for guided development of city infrastructure through a set of policies, notably the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP), the States whose remit it is to manage transport have not responded with equal alacrity. While claiming JNNURM funds they have not created the mandatory institutional structures for urban renewal. They have also not provided a road map for integrated transport development.

The Class I cities with populations of over 100,000 house over 60 per cent of the national urban population; nearly 63 per cent of these residents live in 35 cities that have more than a million people. The bigger cities, particularly the top seven having four million-plus populations, desperately need a new deal for mobility. Only a radical shift in policy can reduce travel times, cost, pollution, and risk of accidents while improving equity, comfort, and ease of access to public facilities. The top priorities must obviously be to increase pedestrian access, create safe routes for cycling, and make massive investments in bus and rail networks.

Expensive rail networks

Among these options, cities have shown the greatest interest in expensive rail networks. The working group of the Planning Commission takes note of the proposals for rail-based mass rapid transit systems for mega cities involving a total outlay of Rs.32,000 crore and cautions that cities should be discouraged from considering metro rail purely because they find it "glamorous." A less expensive option for most major cities would be modern bus systems of scale that can be readily offered using improved road infrastructure, on dedicated "bus lanes" or shared right of way with other vehicles. While new options are possible, cities such as Chennai have initiated fresh ad-hoc and low-scale investments by augmenting their fleet with buses of obsolete design that do not appear to meet international standards of comfort and convenience such as quick entry and exit and access for the disabled.

The monopoly bus operator in Tamil Nadu's capital city (the State is projected to become the most urbanised by 2026) has meanwhile introduced new high-fare routes and extended its area of operation along a 50 km radius covering neighbouring towns; the operational and maintenance infrastructure such as bus termini and depots and information systems have not been modernised; fare cards for unlimited daily, weekly, and monthly travel, which are the international norm, are discouraged by making them hard to obtain; and, finally, the bus network has not been linked with even existing MRTS rail stations.

Such an approach effectively reverses the priorities of the NUTP by incurring heavy expenditures on outmoded systems without the benefit of oversight by a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (the regulator). The UMTA, as prescribed by the NUTP must determine fares, service levels, and integration of buses with urban rail networks for single ticket travel. A good case exists, therefore, for the Centre to suspend grants for such cities under all urban development schemes to compel the laggard State governments to get their priorities right.

Metro rail is favoured by some cities as a solution for inner city transport problems. This mode may have considerable utility in high-density corridors but may fail to get patronage if it does not have fare structures that can match the cost of travel per kilometre by personal vehicles.

The Planning Commission panel points out that ridership for the Delhi Metro has been "far short of the projections." Transportation researchers at IIT Delhi estimate that for Phase I of the Delhi Metro, there was 84 per cent under-utilisation in 2006 based on earlier projections. Chennai's long gestation and low-visibility MRTS is in a worse state, with no brand identity, a decrepit station network, and grossly insufficient service frequency.

Cities are expected to double in size in two to three decades. It is therefore time to take a serious look at their mounting transport problems. The lack of equitable options walking, cycling, and affordable public transport affects vulnerable populations such as students and low-wage workers the most.

Shrinking road space

Distorted policies have, over the years, led to shrinking road space for these classes. IIT Delhi researchers estimate that in Chennai making pedestrian movement and cycling easier can alone meet the transport needs of about 60 per cent of the population made up of these vulnerable groups. Most of them need to commute less than five km.

International transport journals have been reporting extensively in recent years on these problems. Policies that privilege private vehicles have affected other users and created serious pollution and health concerns. The Central Road Research Institute found not long ago that cars, two-wheelers, and petrol-driven autorickshaws emit about 91 per cent of carbon monoxide and 60 per cent of particulates in Chennai.

In a detailed analysis of the impacts of economic growth on transport in India and China, John Pucher and colleagues report in the latest issue of Transport Reviews that the high rates of pedestrian fatalities in India (nearly half of all deaths in road accidents) can be traced to the lack of footpaths, pedestrian crossings, and signals. It is a matter of worry, given such a poor record, that even current externally funded plans (World Bank Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project III, Project Appraisal Document, 2005) contain contradictory goals of road widening, which will essentially help motorists, and creation of pedestrian walkways; in the past, road widening done at the cost of footpaths has been cited by city administrations as a successful decongestion measure, although the outcomes clearly point to unrelieved gridlock (due to steady motorisation) and greater risk for pedestrians. The chairman of one automobile company recently described the situation as "every hour looking like rush hour" and came out in support of mass transit for long commutes.

Indeed, high rates of motorisation have worked against mobility in cities. The Transport Reviews article says that in Mumbai, average roadway speeds have fallen between 1962 and 1997 from 38 kmph to about 20 kmph. Other metros are experiencing similar declines.

It is unlikely that State Governments will make qualitative changes to policy unless they are compelled to do so. The Centre can be more effective if it links the funding under the JNNURM to a recasting of state policy.

To adequately fund public transport expansion, it can introduce a small flat cess on fuel on the model of the successful London congestion charge on cars. By collecting a cess on fuel, rather than taxing cars entering particular city areas, it can avoid creating elaborate collection machinery and investing in sophisticated monitoring technologies. Such a mechanism will also make low fares in public transport possible while addressing concerns of cost recovery that are often used as a justification for tariff hikes.

The NUTP of 2006 has many far-sighted objectives and its overall theme is to "Move people, not vehicles." The JNNURM goals are closely linked, as they are concerned with land use. Yet, neither may be able to reverse the chaotic character of cities if State governments remain reluctant to invest in modern public transport.



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