It had to happen – one of the Indian metros would have had to take a tough stance eventually and that now happens to be Delhi. Faced with an alarming problem of traffic congestion and uncontrolled pollution thanks to emissions, a high-powered committee has made a set of recommendations that flies in the face of what has been transport and housing policy thus far all over the country. The Delhi initiative has much that Chennai can learn from. The question is, will the local policymakers pay heed?
The steps proposed will mean a complete transformation in thinking and action. The panel has mooted a complete ban on construction of flyovers and underpasses unless necessitated by natural barriers such as rivers and hills. Stating that such structures have come about solely because of automobile-centric planning, it states that these promote the use of private vehicles, which ultimately proves detrimental to the city. The study has highlighted that 60 per cent road trips are for distances below four kilometres and 80 per cent below six. It has therefore called for the encouraging of pedestrian paths and cycling routes, with crossings every 250 metres and the banning of all signal-free automobile corridors as these encourage over-speeding and therefore accidents.
The committee has also come down heavily on parking of vehicles on sidewalks, stating that this ought to be made a penal offence with heavy fines. It calls for the implementation of a congestion tax, following the London model and also a steep increase in parking fees. Recognising that two-wheelers have proliferated chiefly because there is no viable public transport alternative, it has demanded heavy investment in the development of bus rapid transport systems (BRTS) where the per km cost will be less than that of riding a two-wheeler. The panel has identified five BRTS routes into Delhi that, it says, if implemented will result in 80 per cent of the population taking to public transport.
But perhaps the most startling recommendation, and one that is likely to result in protests, especially from the builder lobby, is that gated communities ought to be discouraged.
The panel has found that most of these block off local commuting by closing down what were once shortcuts, thereby encouraging people to take to arterial roads and clogging them further.
From recommendation to implementation is, of course, a long way and it remains to be seen as to how the popularly elected Government in Delhi reacts to all of this. But given that the city has been much in the news for the wrong reasons, such as traffic congestion and pollution (a recent study says that longevity is reduced by six years if you live in Delhi), there may be no alternative.
Chennai may not have as yet reached this tipping point, but that is all the more reason as to why it ought to seriously think along these lines. It was only recently that we had national accident statistics published, according to which Tamil Nadu ranked number one with 43 people dying every day in road mishaps. Chennai led the list within the State with the number of fatalities in the city being 866 last year.
We are still building flyovers and catering to the automobile owners. The emphasis is still on achieving greater speeds for cars at the expense of passenger and pedestrian safety. Gated communities are still the rage, especially in the outskirts – areas that are newly being developed and ought therefore to set examples for the rest of the city rather than becoming the bottlenecks they promise to be. Will the planners here open their eyes to reality?