Gridlocked for eternity

Passengers in city Bus, in Bengaluru. Photo by S K Dinesh

Beyond Namma Metro’s limited catchment area, beyond the skeletal suburban rail network, lies vast swathes of the city in an unrelenting maze of traffic chaos. Inadequate, unreliable public transport, shambolic roads and pedestrian footpaths have trapped commuters in an endless nightmare. Is there a well-thought out transport rescue plan in the offing?

First, some sobering thoughts. Decades of slow-paced planning, designing and building have left the city with just 42 kms of the Metro. The second phase, slated to extend the network beyond 72 kms, will take many more years to complete. Despite its huge potential, a full-fledged suburban rail network is yet to shake off its drawing room cobwebs.

Only option: Bus

So, what next? Improving the BMTC bus service is the only viable option in the short and medium term, notes Dr Ashish Varma, Associate Professor, Transportation Systems Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science. “Bus commute should be made attractive. Giving priority to buses is critical to improve travel time and reliability,” he explains.

But bus priority, as Varma says, should go beyond simply demarcating dedicated lanes. “It won’t work on one lane or one area. It has to be a network on arterial and sub-arterial roads. The space will then get automatically readjusted and bus commute become an end-to-end mobility option.”

Affordability is another key factor. “By increasing fares, you are making it unaffordable to a whole lot of people from the lower sections of society. They will find two-wheelers cheaper and shift in a big way,” he reasons. Citing increased fuel prices, the Bangalore Transport Metropolitan Corporation (BMTC) has proposed a 18% hike in bus fares.

Shuttle buses

Poor last-mile connectivity has been a perennial complaint against buses. But why not think smaller shuttle buses that can negotiate the smaller feeder roads? Srinivas Alavilli from Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB) agrees. “Short hop, shuttle buses every 10 minutes within a small area can work wonders. Imagine such buses going all around Jayanagar 4th block, for instance,” he points out.

The message is clear: Alignment of bus routes based on old ways of thinking should change. Majestic, Shivajinagar and City Market are not the only commuter hubs. Reimagine bus routes that originate from Metro stations and suburban railway stations; introduce smaller capacity buses to boost accessibility deep into the interiors.

This strategy could potentially resolve the commute crisis on the jam-packed Outer Ring Road and Sarjapur Road. Here’s why: Mushrooming of tech parks and IT firms on these stretches have triggered a massive rush of private vehicles. These arterial roads are poorly linked to the suburban railway stations. The ORR Metro line, connecting Silk Board Junction with K R Puram could take years to take off.

Station upgrade

Spearheading a ‘Modalu Rail Beku’ campaign, Alavalli reiterates a plan articulated for years by commuters and citizen activists alike: Upgrade the existing Carmelaram, Bellandur Road and Heelalige railway stations on the Salem line; introduce multiple halt stations, and provide good bus connectivity.

This, he reckons, could shift a big chunk of the road traffic to the rail. “There is no choice. Lakhs of IT employees work in companies near the Carmelaram station. Wipro is building a new campus with 30,000 employees two kilometres from the station. Sarjapur Road will be permanently gridlocked if even 10% use their own cars,” he warns.

Signage lacuna

Commuters on ORR and Sarjapur Road are stuck for hours during the morning and evening peak periods. Many would hop onto to a train if they could reach the station seamlessly by walk or cycling. “But if you are on Sarjapur Road, there is not even a signboard indicating how close the Carmelaram station is,” notes Alavilli.

Halt stations at key locations such as Marathahalli, coupled with high-frequency trains, could effectively link the IT hubs of Whitefield and Electronics City with hi-density residential areas. “Combine policy action with low-hanging fruits such as the suburban rail network and high bus frequency, and it should start showing results.”

Non-motorised options

Beyond motorised options, walkability and cycling infrastructure also demand a major upgrade. “You don’t need heavy investment to do this. If the distance from a Metro or railway station is less than 5-6 kms, cycle-sharing is a good option. For longer distances, a system of park and ride can work well. The catchment area around a station should be fully understood,” elaborates Varma.

The rising popularity of Yulu and Pedal cycles, and Bounce and Vogo bikes could be models to emulate. Positioned at select Metro and suburban rail stations, these ride options could now be accessed through mobile apps. But for a dramatic shift from private transport to these options, the footpath and cycling infrastructure will need a major upgrade.

Route realignment

But to boost commute options in areas not served by rail, BMTC bus routes will have to be realigned as feeder services branching out from the stations. Urban mobility experts also stress another key design issue: The poor strategy of aligning Metro lines along existing suburban tracks.

Alas, such strategies will continue to dictate the city’s transport planning since different agencies still work in silos. A Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) could potentially address these gaps. But the Authority has remained a non-starter for years.

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Gridlocked for eternity

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