Time to push the reverse gear
India is widening roads and building flyovers to pamper car owners while the world is going for traffic-free ways and public transport
INDIA'S NATIONAL transport policy says there should be socially equitable distribution of space on roads but as is quite evident, we are biased towards motor vehicles. For a country like us, number of people transported is much more important than number of vehicles transported. By that standard, most of our highways are unconstitutional. We have only 18 four wheelers per 1,000 persons, which is much less when compared with US (809) and Germany (554). However, that does not stop us from importing their designs for our roads, thus, inviting disaster. Since the western road designs are for homogeneous traffic (because almost everyone there is on a car), they don't cater to our local traffic which include pedestrians, cyclists, animal-driven carts and a large number of two wheelers using the same road as heavy motor vehicles.
Also, expanding and building flyovers on our urban roads without a firm policy related to land use pattern along these roads is an illogical exercise. Practically, one urban road should not be expanded more than four lanes because according to the rule of traffic equilibrium, people shift to alternate, under-utilised routes whenever there is congestion. More than four lane makes it difficult for a pedestrian to cross the road in the available 15 to 20 second time.
Let's have a look at a scenario when there is a normal road with residences alongside. The traffic starts increasing with time, so the road is widened. Now, due to this extra lane, the route attracts more people and besides meeting its own demand, it has to cater to additional 10 per cent traffic. Due to the increased vehicle movement, the house owners residing along the road find it lucrative to turn their dwellings into commercial spaces. This change in activity will attract 20 per cent more traffic and during the day time, one lane will be occupied for parking again causing congestion. Now, the next 'logical' step for our planners is to further expand the road or build a flyover. The problem is we keep on digging the road while the solution lies on its side. If there had been a freeze on change of land use, there would not have been any commercial activity and the traffic would have been manageable. In many European cities, the planners are doing just that: freezing the land use change and returning to narrower roads with lesser traffic.
Stress on public transport
The urban highways are being dismantled in several cities across the world. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a pioneer of this concept. In 2003, an expressway in the city's Central Business District (CBD) was demolished to reclaim a natural creek Cheonggyecheon. It was found that though the expressway served the mobility needs of the burgeoning car owners, it severely diminished the attractiveness of CBD which lost around 40,000 residents and 80,000 jobs in 10 years after the expressway was completed.
Besides the demolition of expressway, Seoul also implemented a car restriction policy and established designated several kilometers of median lanes for buses resulting in increased accessibility to public transport. According to the traffic surveys by Seoul Metropolitan Government, the number of vehicles entering or leaving 24 entry/exist points along the Cheonggyecheon in 2006 decreased by 43 per cent and 47 per cent, respectively, as compared to their 2002 baselines. The commercial area started attracting investors and property prices in the area increased. Improvement in air quality and reduction of noise pollution were additional advantages. Now, more than 50,000 people daily visit the creek for recreational activities. Similar success stories also exist in Paris, Berlin and US cities of New York, Portland, San Francisco and Milwaukee. Sadly, we are blindly borrowing from the infrastructure model of the US and other developed countries while they are junking it. Our cities need to lay more stress on public transport. A car's average household trip occupancy rate is 1.1 but it takes around 23 sq m, the same area which can host several cyclists. This will also help save the foreign reserve, one third of which is currently being spent on oil import.
In Delhi, the bus rapid transport (BRT) corridor has democratised the public space which had earlier been occupied by private vehicles. Besides offering faster service to bus users, it has brought around 1,200 new cyclists to the main road by offering them a separate lane. Scared of bigger motor vehicles, these cyclists were earlier taking internal, longer routes. The same BRT has been dubbed a failure by car users just because they are facing congestion. Owning a car is a luxury in our country and it should not automatically guarantee a right to freeway. The real benefits of BRT will be visible only if it's further expanded. People will switch to buses easing congestion and leading to improvement in air and noise pollution.
Example of Bogota in Colombia can be quoted here for better understanding. The city was facing heavy traffic congestion for which six urban highways (with toll plazas) and a metro system were proposed. However, Bagota's mayor decided to go for BRT and within six years of its implementation, traffic fatalities in the city reduced by 89 per cent while cycle use increased by five times because of traffic-free ways. The whole system was developed much faster and at a fraction of the cost of highways and metro system. A BRT corridor costs Rs 3-5 crore per km as compared to Rs 200 crore per km for a metro and can carry 30 per cent more passengers if designed properly. It's high time we understand these simple calculations and avoid falling into the trap of highly expensive expressways and flyovers just to ensure smooth ride to a small fraction of our population.
Navdeep Asija is a civil engineering research scholar working in the field of road safety.
Read the report 'Life and death of urban highways'