Unintelligent project

The High Court of Karnataka recently held that the widening of the road from Sadashivanagar to Yeshwantpur did not violate the principle of prior and informed public consent as contained in the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act.

It accepted the Bangalore Development Authority’s contention that since the proposal to widen the road to 30 metres was part of the Comprehensive Development Plan of Bangalore in 1984, it was unnecessary to inform the public every decade when this plan was revised.

The High Court said widening roads is the only means to overcome traffic congestion. While the import of this judgment is limited to Sadashivnagar Road, it is indicative of the thinking amongst key decision-makers who believe that we can build wide roads to relieve traffic congestion in Bangalore and other urban areas.

Quite in contrast, major cities world over are working to constrict spaces for private automobile movement, especially in core city areas.  Providing safe pathways to encourage people to cycle, walk and use public transport (mainly bus based), are the new-age technologies of mobility.

Seoul, the capital of South Korea, recently tore down a massive expressway running through its city and turned it into a pedestrian and cyclist delight.

Curitiba in Brazil and Bogota in Colombia are South American examples of how city governments invested in low-carbon intensive public transport projects, supported by walking and cycling; not car-friendly (and pedestrian-unfriendly) wide roads that waste millions of dollars, dismember old neighbourhoods and only aggravate the congestion problem.

Many metropolitan areas of North America are regretting having widened roads in the past to accommodate cars. They are now energetically rebuilding cycling and pedestrian paths, and bus systems.

In Boston, a network of railroads and expressways cutting through the core city was pushed underground, and the reclaimed surface turned into an eight-mile-long Braddock Park Corridor filled with children’s parks, cycling paths, community gardens, and what not.

The result is that local economies have been energised and crime rates have dropped. Many European cities are using innovative land-use policies to protect charming, old inner city neighbourhoods, rejecting car-based transport, and encouraging cycling, walking and street vending. 

In Africa, Durban leads. Last year, the city hosted UN Climate Change talks and its municipality acted by promoting cycling and walking, backed by a generous grant of 1,000 cycles from UNIDO to adopt the Paris rent-a-cycle initiative.

As I grew up in Bangalore, I cycled everywhere. It was relatively safe to cycle then. The lack of foresight of our so-called urban planners has reduced cycling and walking into a death wish today.

A tragedy indeed, as nowhere else in the world can we get a city like Bangalore with a climate so conducive for such health-securing, money-saving and carbon-neutral activities.

The greater tragedy is that promoting road-widening, elevated expressways and such other mega projects has become a mantra for ensuring political legacy. Ske­wed urban imaginations promoted widening of 90 roads during S M Krishna’s regime, which list has now grown to 216.

All this when the National Urban Transport Policy, 2007, argues that cities must be so developed as to provide “...equitable allocation of road space with people, rather than vehicles, as its main focus”.

Were Bangalore to actually implement such policy prescriptive, the City would then redesign streets so that everyone (rich, middle class, poor and differently abled) would have an equal opportunity (physically and economically) to move within the City and with low, or no risk to life.

Our City and State governments are instead pursuing mega projects that gobble thousands of crores of rupees of our money (which we can safely assume have mega cuts for the corrupt as well), even as they admit that technical and financial viability is yet to be assessed.

It is high time key decision-makers abandon this myopic approach, step back a bit and think conscientiously with the people the wastefulness such projects result in. Felling hundreds of gloriously grown avenue trees, the gross injustice of breaking down hundreds of homes and centuries-old businesses (without compensation, for TDR is not), and the inhumane displacement of thousands of poor street vendors whose livelihoods are tied to the idea that streets are our multi-purpose commons, are all indicative of our disregard for democratic, inclusive and progressive urban life that the Constitution guarantees.

This is also illustrative of the rhetorical abuse of the concept of “sustainable development” to justify carbon-intensive, socially unjust, unintelligent and economically unviable mega road-widening projects which are bandied about as solutions, when such ideas have long been trashed elsewhere.

The author is co-ordinator, Environment Support Group. The views expressed here are his own.

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