World Environment Day
“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” Gustavo Petro
Surprising that one should find the above quote, that too from a Colombian politician and former guerrilla, in an Indian government publication. But all the same, nothing sums up better all that is wrong with our urban transportation.
And going by it, I must confess, despite sincere efforts to upgrade and become rich, I have not been able to do so. But then neither is India a developed country yet. However, this could be the story of any other metro in the country where wanton infrastructure build-up is happening.
Almost 18 months since the inauguration of the Hyderabad Metro, two years later than originally planned, I still drive around in my beaten-up Maruti. That is because the proverbial last mile connectivity is non-existent, or sparse and vexatious at best. But this is not about the Metro. It is more about what you see in the picture above.
It was not many years back that I drove through here on umpteen assignments on my two-wheeler with an approach skirted by the Malkam Cheruvu at Rai Durgam on both sides of the road, enjoying the cool breeze and greenery. The crossroads are now called the Biodiversity Park Junction (God knows where it has gone), and the lake itself, just 2 kms down the road, is now truncated to just one side and skirted, some say encroached upon, by a pucca embankment. Whatever remains of it is an expanse of green as the water is infested since months by hyacinth and algae that is killing it. A different take is that it is the unrestricted real estate and building activity in the city, that is responsible for the disappearance of the city’s lakes.
Coming back to the pricture, it is the multi-level flyover that is coming up at the Biodiversity Park Junction which is part of the ambitious Strategic Road Development Plan (SRDP), which envisages some 20 odd such structures at a whopping cost of between Rs 20,000 crore and Rs 24,000 crore when complete in all its phases.
It involves the building of skyways, major corridors, roads, grade separators and flyovers to apparently ensure “overall improvement in connectivity and ease traffic congestion.”
The question to ask then is, do flyovers really make sense? And can’t we address traffic woes without these steel and cement monstrosities?
Before we dwell into the answers to the above questions, a little bit about Hyderabad itself.
According to the Environmental Protection and Research Institute (EPTRI), a state-run consultancy and training body, the secret to Hyderabad’s beauty and splendours, evident as recently as a decade back, was its unique rocky contours shaped by natural and man-made lakes. All of these lakes drained into the river Musi during monsoons, uniquely maintaining the city’s cleanliness, its biodiversity and water table.
However, over the years the uncontrolled urban sprawl has taken its toll affecting the city’s water resources and climate. The rampant exploitation of the city’s rock formations, some of which date back almost 2.5 billion years, has also led to the disappearance of water bodies, loss of biodiversity and decrease in the number of gardens. “The city lost its unique synergy between geology and ecology due to urbanization”, notes a status report by EPTRI on Hyderabad’s environment.
Demand Always Outstrips Supply
Hyderabad surrounds nearly 650 km square, and the larger metropolitan region extends up to 7228 km square today. The population density in 1961 was 266 persons/ km square. This increased to over 18172 persons/km square by 2011. The city’s population is projected to increase to about 19 million by the year 2041. On an average, close to 800-1000 new vehicles are being added to the roads in Hyderabad every day. Over the last seven years nearly 20 lakh new two and four-wheelers have been added to the city roads taking the total over one million last year. And if Road Transport Departmetn data is to be believed most of these are private vehicles. While the road network in the city accounts for just 12% of the total geographical space, as against the recommended 20%, going by the rapid increase in vehicle population demand for more roads will always outstrip its supply.
So that brings us back to the moot question. Is this issue addressable only by constructing new and expensive flyovers? Not necessarily, say experts. Flyovers have not always proved effective and the additional capacity they create is only short lived. Hyderabad itself is a living example of this. There are instances of cities bringing down flyovers to revert to earlier road systems.
The reality is that while the rocks, the lakes, and the greenery in the city is being engulfed by these cement structures, it is also not very clear if authorities have thoroughly explored alternatives before embarking into a series of seemingly ecological disastrous ventures.
Instead of trying to pander to it, authorities need to shift focus to better demand management on account of the ever increasing number of drivers on the roads. The emphasis has to be on more effective use of existing traffic pipelines and utilising their inherent capacities instead of building more flyovers. It is not rocket science, but five simple solutions have been suggested as an alternative to rampant build-up of flyovers to ease congestion in the city.
- Set up a BRTS in Hyderabad:
Apparently, this is being examined by the city transport authorities. But this should have been a precursor instead of an afterthought. World over it has been proved that a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS), if implemented properly, works best. It can be implemented at moderate costs in relatively shorter time to deliver higher quality of service and capacity to move larger numbers of passengers.
According to the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), a BRTS can carry between 10,000 and 30,000 people per hour per direction, which is seven to eight time more than the capacity of a two-lane flyover. The system can also be deployed quickly at a fraction of the cost of a flyover which can cost Rs 200 crore per kilometre. In contrast a BRTS could cost between Rs 15 and Rs 20 crore per kilometre leveraging existing infrastructure with minimal modifications like road widening.
- Improve last mile linkages to public transport
The Hyderabad Metro Rail is conscious of this but its efforts are still work in progress. Though HMR has worked out deals with 10 odd companies to provide various services like bikes, App-based ride hailing, and self-driven two-wheelers, leaves much to be desired for with the pricing, the quality and availability leaves much to be desired. Moreover the focus has been only on the IT district where most techies working two kms and more from metro stations have either to foot it or resort to shared autos. Similar is the case with the bus system and the MMTS in the city. If services are indeed available, then they fall short on the last mile connectivity.
- Make driving smoother
Though a contradiction with the basic objective of reducing private vehicles on the roads, one has to realise smart public transport will, and is still, some time away. Hence it is necessary that instead of pumping in thousands of crores on building new flyovers, which will run out of capacity in no time, it is better a portion of that money is spent on improving existing roads conditions to reduce pollution, driving stress and congestion.
- Lane Discipline to increase road capacity
One has also to realise that citizens themselves are equal partners in crime creating driving stress, congestion and chaos on the roads. Everybody knows, driving in the lane is an alien concept in Hyderabad. Neither do the traffic authorities ever speak of imposing it. Not surprisingly, capacity utilisation on the existing roads is drastically impeded. Again, it is a no-brainer that better road discipline would ease congestion and pollution. Perhaps a carrot and stick approach is needed to get citizens to fall in line, with a bias towards the latter with exemplary punishment and fines.
- Congestion Tax
Rising incomes, easy finance and inflated egos make for bigger cars on the roads. Rising fuel costs are no impediment. There is a case for making purchase of new cars, or for that matter pre-owned cars also, an unattractive proposition. At the same time single-occupant driving itself should be made prohibitive as has been practiced in many countries.
Attempts to address congestion have been made in the past in India like the ill conceived odd-even system in Delhi. But there are better alternatives like the congestion tax for consideration. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) are reportedly examining the feasibility of levying a congestion tax on vehicles in areas that run parallel to Metro routes in Mumbai. While London pioneered the Congestion Tax some 16 years back, New York is the latest to impose such a levy. The benefits of such a tax are quite well established. For instance studies showed that since imposition of a Congestion Tax in Stockholm in 2007, ambient air pollution came down by 5-15%. This reduction was associated with a significant decrease in the rate of acute asthma attacks among young children.
The island city-state of Singapore has made owning a car itself an expensive proposition by forcing potential owners of new vehicles to first bid for a Certificate of Entitlement (COE), which represents a right to vehicle ownership and use of the limited road space for 10 years. Renewal thereafter is for five years after which the vehicle is deregistered.
A combination of the above solutions could be looked into to suit the specific conditions in Hyderabad to make owners/drivers think twice before shunning the public transport system and resorting to their cars.
But a necessary precondition to such punitive measures is that the administration improves the public transportation and road systems better. At the same time it has to shun its penchant for vanity projects.Else, citizens will be spewing venom while also continuing to breath the toxic fumes in the city.