Highways for the high-heeled

Highways for the high-heeled

Are high-speed, access-controlled, heavily tolled roads the answer to decongest Bengaluru? As the state government moves in to reverse the recent NICE road toll hike, this question has sparked a serious debate. A debate that is focused on commuters stuck in chaotic traffic on roads underneath and along those fancy toll-ways.

Simply put, ‘speed’ cannot come at a cost that totally ignores the local commuters and the pedestrians, whose only way to cross the toll-ways would be those monstrous skywalks.
The signal-free corridors, proposed to run across the city’s length and breadth are designed for speed, and nothing else.

Pay the toll and commuting would be a breeze. This is the promise of those fancy roads, some elevated, some not. Do the planners notice that the fast-moving vehicles getting out of the toll-ways end up clogging the next traffic junction? Since most roads underneath and beside the tolled roads tend to be neglected – because they are free - traffic piles up. Chaos reigns.

Of course, for vehicles on the Electronics City Elevated Toll-way, commuting is a breeze. But for those heading from Silk Board junction towards areas before Electronics City, the toll-way is just not an option.

There is not a single down or up ramp. Getting caught in every junction underneath is a daily ordeal for lakhs of people in areas bordering the toll-way.

Not stakeholders
The reason is clear: Neighbourhoods abutting the toll-ways are not made stakeholders in such toll-ways, says urban mobility analyst Ashwin Mahesh. “For instance, who is responsible for avoiding congestion at the Bommanahalli junction? It is strange that different agencies have responsibilities at different levels. Locational jurisdiction has to be uniform,” he points out.

The responsibility should not end with the main carriageway. Maintenance of the service roads and grade separators attached to the tolled road should also be the concern of the agency. If this is mandated, the Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise (NICE) will then be forced to think beyond the NICE roads and ensure seamless connectivity to other arterial roads.

Designed as an arc encircling the city half way, NICE road has become the default route for inter-state trucks to bypass the traffic.

But with Bengaluru's expansion far beyond the BBMP limits, this road is now within 17 km from the city centre.

Poorly linked
The high toll would be justified only if the NICE road is connected to every major arterial road and other tolled roads. But, as Mahesh notes, there is no way to cross over from this road to the Electronics City Elevated road. It is equally tough to get onto the NICE road from Bannerghatta road or Magadi road.

The heavily tolled Airport Road follows the same pattern. Several localities on its sides have no recourse to continuous service roads, leading to traffic snarls. Peak-hour traffic triggers mammoth gridlocks on the roads under the Tumakuru Road elevated toll-way.

The Green Metro line running along Tumakuru Road has several stations. But pedestrians risk their lives to cross the highway under the elevated road. There are no underpasses, skywalks or designated pedestrian crossing points. 

Communities split
If huge gaps remain in these connections, tolled roads on their own end up splitting communities, as Sathya Sankaran from Citizens For Sustainability (CiFoS) puts it. He explains, “Since Indian cities have weak zoning laws, ribbon development around the roads contribute to this splitting. So, retrofitting a tolled road inside a built-up city becomes very dangerous.”

Roads are built to last 50 to 100 years. “Studies are required to understand how it will impact the localities around, the traffic and the economy around it. Monetisation should not be directly from the road but from what comes out of it. Road is a means of transport, how it benefits the economy needs to be understood,” says Sankaran.

But NICE road has not been built on that model. Periodic revision of toll is a way to keep the monetisation ball rolling. When the state government issued a notice to NICE to withdraw its recent toll hike, its justification was telling: The revision was pending for the last four years. The toll has been increased by 14% to 25 % on 41 km of peripheral road and 9.1 km of link road.

These issues are likely to remain unaddressed unless contracts are awarded not only for the roads but for the infrastructure around it. The private players are allowed to focus only on what helps them monetise. They are not made accountable to the impact of the project. This money-based approach is preferred because avenues for siphoning off funds are multiple.

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