Transit Oriented Development has great potential, but only with a master plan

TOD looks fine in a green-field area, but what about in a sprawling metropolis like Bengaluru or even its outskirts, left to grow unregulated in wild, haphazard ways?

Published - August 11, 2023 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

TOD might be a challenge in brown-field situations, where retro-fitting the concept on already congested areas will prove tough to execute.

TOD might be a challenge in brown-field situations, where retro-fitting the concept on already congested areas will prove tough to execute. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Can Transit Oriented Development (TOD), where homes, offices, and commercial spaces are within walking, cycling, and public transport distances from a Metro or Suburban station, be retrofitted to fix Bengaluru’s perennial mobility issues? That looks like a far cry, but without a proper master plan in place, a TOD-first approach to guide the city’s future looks even more complicated.

TOD looks great on paper. It was drafted by the Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) and the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) in May 2019 and approved first by the Bommai Government in November 2022. Besides ease of access, TOD also proposes a boost to vertical growth through land use changes, and a consequent push to population density along Metro, suburban, and other mass transit corridors.

Now, this should sound like a dream for anyone caught in gridlocked traffic, struggling to access even the nearest Metro station or bus stop. Cycling lanes are non-existent today, and footpaths everywhere are almost always in dire need of maintenance. In a core TOD zone, a mass transit station will be just 500 metres or a six-minute walk away. Beyond this core area, the TOD extends to a kilometre where the station will be within a six-minute cycling distance.

Retro-fitting TOD

The obvious question that crops up is this: TOD looks fine in a green-field area, where a new Metro or suburban line enters with the promise of local development. But what about the congested heart of the city, or even its outskirts, left to grow unregulated in wild, haphazard ways? Besides, Multi-Modal Integration (MMI), a key element of the TOD concept, is almost a joke today, with even a pedestrian bridge linking a Metro and Railway Station taking years to get off the drawing board.

Embedded in the proposed TOD ecosystem, MMI talks about ensuring seamless connectivity from transit hubs to homes / destinations through easy, sustainable, and convenient mobility options. MMI is also about ensuring easy transfers between different modes such as the Metro, BMTC bus, cycling, and walking. This is achieved both physically and digitally through infrastructure, ticketing and travel information.

Mixed signals

But to get moving on TOD and other critically linked policies, the State should have clarity on the way forward. Seeking public and institutional feedback on a sustainable ‘Brand Bengaluru’ cannot go with an unrelenting push for questionable projects such as Tunnel Roads, say mobility activists and experts. As one of them puts it, “This government is sending mixed signals. I don’t think they have a clear vision of what they want to do.”

TOD might be a challenge in brown-field situations, where retro-fitting the concept on already congested areas will prove tough to execute. But, as Dr. Ashish Verma, convenor of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Sustainable Transportation Lab, points out, it can work in green-field situations if planned and structured well. A new Metro station in an area with less development could be a start.

Even in the inner city areas, elements of the TOD design can work, as tellingly illustrated by the Church Street First initiative three years ago. Under the Clean Air Street initiative, Church Street was closed for motor vehicles every weekend for four months from November 7, 2020 to February 28, 2021. The objective was to re-prioritise clean mobility and demonstrate the positive impact of streets focused on people and sustainable behaviours.

Dr. Verma recalls that the pedestrianisation triggered a huge increase in ridership, both boarding and alighting at the MG Road Metro Station. “The increase was more than 100 percent during those months. Taking a cue from that, the TOD policy also talks about pedestrianisation within the influence zone of the mass transit nodes as one of the strategies. The idea is to bring more people onto mass transit, influencing their commute behavior,” he explains.

Tackle ‘Transit’ in TOD first

Beyond walkability, there is a need to focus on the Transit part of the TOD, contends Shaheen Shasa from the Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike. “How do we develop transit in places that are already so densely packed? If you take the Outer Ring Road (ORR), what we need is transit and not TOD. Can TOD help address last mile connectivity, because of which people are not able to use the buses?” she wonders.

Shaheen says TOD should adopt a transit-first approach, particularly public bus transport. “Currently, all the road development, traffic management, one-ways, U-turns are anti-bus. How much can a bus do? We are not developing and planning for a bus at all. It is not even in our imagination when we do the traffic planning.”

In a car-obsessed mobility ecosystem that wants private vehicles to whizz past without stopping, how viable is a TOD? This is her question. “Bus commuters are spending that extra three-four minutes to take skywalks and elevators (that rarely works). Their time is not valuable at all. If TOD can address these issues, then I am for it,” she says.

Beyond real-estate development

Proximity to the mass transit stations for all sections of society is critical. Densification through vertical growth and land-use changes should not end up benefiting only the real estate players. Urban planning expert V. Ravichandar particularly stresses a broader approach: “The TOD should not just be about increased Floor Area Ratio (FAR), it should also meet the social objectives.”

He elaborates, “You have to be clear that part of the development has to be for social rental housing so that the cooks and drivers can live in the neighbourhood around a metro station. TOD should not end up gentrifying the area, where the poor have to move further and further away.”

Higher FAR alone will not make TOD work, says Radha Chanchani, Senior Manager, Sustainable Cities Programme, World Resources Institute (WRI), India. “Definitely, without looking at all of those development regulations and rationalizing them higher FAR will not even serve as an incentive,” she adds.

TOD-based city growth strategy

The way the TOD concept was incorporated into the previous master plan, she recalls, was extremely limited. “It was not at all meaningful at the city level. The principles detailed in the TOD policy, such as focus on non-motorised transport, place-making, sustainable practices, and a whole host of other issues that are infinitely more important than higher FAR, should be incorporated into the city’s master plan. You need to have a TOD-based city growth strategy, like how Delhi, Ahmedabad, and other major world cities are doing it,” Radha explains.

The strategy, she says, should be based on very tight land use transport integration and compact city development. “You need a different and special regulation for the TOD zones to enable higher density mixed use development. There is a clear logic. Higher order transit infrastructure can take higher intensity of land uses because it can service a larger number of trips. It needs supporting infrastructure.”

Besides, TOD is also not a one size fits all. “You have to have a framework that is flexible and nuanced enough to respond to the city level strategy. But it has to respond to the local station area conditions also. That framework is being developed, both to inform the city level strategy as well as how to do detailed TOD zone plans and spatial areas that respond to local needs,” says Radha.

Middle, low income housing

On the real estate front, developers often play up proximity to the Metro as property promotion. TOD, if not planned and executed well, could end up pushing this even further. But, as Dr. Ashish warns, TOD should not create one kind of real estate unaffordable to even the middle classes. “Then you defeat the whole purpose. If you put real estate in the TOD zone for people who are rich, then in all likelihood, they will still own and use their personal vehicles irrespective of how close the transit option is,” he reasons.

The development in the TOD zone should be regulated to accommodate even middle and low income housing, he says. “The real estate mafia cannot be allowed to capture the TOD opportunity and use it as a way to upscale their property values.” 

Integrating the TOD into a well-structured master plan for the city, as Shaheen reiterates, should also include affordable housing built around affordable transit options. In Bengaluru, that remains the BMTC bus, which carries massive numbers of people every day. The TOD has to prioritise the issues of the most vulnerable, she says. “We need more buses, bus depots, and plans aligned to seamless access and movement of buses. First, think how you will ensure transport to communities pushed out of the city in the name of development.”

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