Densification of Bengaluru's core: Way forward?

Densification of Bengaluru's core: Way forward?

Transit Oriented Development

Forever caught in commute hardships, can we foresee a future where a mass transit Metro or suburban rail station is barely a five to 10-minute walk away? Why not a well-integrated pedestrian, bicycle, feeder network that connects our homes and workplaces seamlessly?

This is precisely the promise of a Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) policy, now proposed under the Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP). But before that progression from draft to policy stage, TOD has some critical questions to answer. On mixed land use, on its linkage with the city’s Master Plan, and how it proposes to address existing policy bottlenecks.

High-density nodes

TOD talks about developing concentrated nodes of moderate-to-high density mixed land-use within a short walking/cycling distance from mass transit stations.

Simply put, that implies houses, workplaces, shopping and recreation areas within a distance of about 500m to a kilometre from a Metro station, suburban railway station or a BMTC bus terminal.

The big idea is this: A policy that will push people to dump their private, personal vehicles and opt for public transport that is accessible, and within a short distance.

But this plan also demands that the footpaths leading to the mass transit stations are walkable, lanes are fit for cycling and the last-mile feeder options are reliable.

Read: TOD as a solution for last-mile connectivity concerns

Halt urban sprawls

So, why should Bengaluru city opt for TOD? The city, with an existing population of about 1.3 crore projected to touch 2.03 crore by 2031, cannot afford to continue with its urban sprawl. The Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) notes that the city has been expanding at a rate of 39 sqkm per year.

The message is clear: Doubling the land requirement is not an option to accommodate the fast-growing population. “There is a need to optimise the available land and promote the compact development with augmentation of infrastructure.”

As a clear sign of the urban sprawl, the erstwhile Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) with 100 wards had morphed into a bigger Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) in 2007. The city corporation’s jurisdictional area swelled to well over 800 sqkm. But in the last 13 years, the newly added areas have remained pathetically short of even the basic amenities.

While the city’s population exploded on its outskirts, the growth in core areas – where the highest levels of municipal services are available – declined. “This is uneconomical for the city. In this context, there is a need to evaluate the land-use policies in core areas,” notes a TOD policy note by DULT.

Densification benefits

Urban sprawl is inherently inefficient due to underdevelopment, the paucity of infrastructure and land-intensive low-rise living spaces. TOD is the way to go as it encourages densification by maximizing use of available resources, notes urban planning expert V Ravichander. “TOD also helps recover investments made in mass transit options such as the Metro. It improves ridership,” he adds.

But the draft Revised Master Plan (RMP-2031) runs counter to this rationale. The Plan contends that the area within the Outer Ring Road (Planning Area A) is congested and polluted and thus requires strategies to stabilize its growth so that commercialisation of economic centres is discouraged.

In line with this argument, the RMP-2031 has proposed that the Floor Space Index (FSI) (also called Floor Area Ration-FAR) should remain as it is in Planning Area A, but be enhanced to 4 in Planning Area B (Area beyond ORR and up to conurbation area). The Master Plan also adds another 80 sq km for urbanization and thus encourages further urban sprawl.

Land Aggregation Policy

Incorporating TOD with a relook at the RMP-2031 is thus critical. This means densification of the core city areas. But will this be easy with the existing policies? No, says Ravichander. “Densification can happen only by coming out with a progressive Land Aggregation Policy. TOD needs to go hand-in-hand with reforms to help landowners/builders to densify.”

Here’s the explanation: Landholdings in the city’s core areas are small. “On paper, FAR / FSI can be increased to 4. But in practice, exploiting the higher FAR will be impractical as small landholdings have restrictions on height and setback. But a Land Aggregation Policy will help aggregation of six to seven smaller land parcels.”

Without such a policy, landowners would also end up paying double stamp duty. Aggregation could aid a well planned and regulated densification / more high-rises. Across the city, thousands of single-storey houses have morphed to three and four-storeyed apartments. The question now is ‘why not higher?’

Acceptable walking distance

In his technical review of the Comprehensive Mobility Plan, Prof Dr Ashish Verma from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Department of Civil Engineering, draws attention to another area that TOD should focus on: Walking distance.

Verma explains, “While developing TOD plan, it is very important to understand the acceptable trip distance of walking population correctly. Development beyond the acceptable trip distance might result in an increase in the usage of private vehicles.”

To reap the maximum benefits of TOD, there is a need for more realistic data, he notes. “The thumb rule is 500m from a Metro station. But the travel survey data from studies we did earlier showed that the distance could go up to 700-800m. The data could vary depending on different purposes, different income groups.”

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