Sense and sensibility on B'luru roads

It is ridiculous that the number of potholes gets to be a matter of discussion in Bengaluru where, in October 2017, a marathon meeting at the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) concluded that the city's roads had exactly 15,935 potholes. Potholes are just one symbol of the carnage we see on Bengaluru roads.

That we have a huge vehicular population is undeniable. Over 70 lakh vehicles are registered in the city - compared to Mumbai's 31 lakh or Chennai's 48 lakh - which gets further aggravated due to Bengaluru's road density. Despite a road network spanning 10,200 km, the length of road for every sqkm of area is only 8.2 km, the reason for such severe congestion on most arterial roads.

With acute congestion, traffic speeds for motor vehicles on the Outer Ring Road (ORR) is 4.48 kmph! Compare this to 8-10 kmph, the walking speed of an average healthy young individual. That's how slow and agonising traffic movement has become.

Notwithstanding the slow average speeds, you have an extraordinary number of accidents on Bengaluru roads. According to the city traffic police, road accidents killed 800 individuals and left 6,500 injured in 2016. Road accidents seem to kill more people than epidemics, making even the World Bank wary of giving loans for road development.

For anyone undertaking a road journey, the risk of a fatal accident has risen steadily due to a set of composite factors, including poor road design and engineering, failure of civic agencies to maintain roads and infrastructure, weak enforcement of inadequate traffic laws, a faulty driving licence system, and poor monitoring of roadworthiness of commercial vehicles causing brake failures, and other maintenance lapses. Ironically, the few good roads themselves are a source of danger as they tempt drivers to speed indiscriminately.

The high rate of road crashes is a consequence of bad road-user behaviour. Instances of road rage in Bengaluru have now become more frequent, with diligent commuters becoming vulnerable to the traffic offender's sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility towards shared spaces and resources. Apart from being fed up of traffic jams due to the nightmare that road travel in Bengaluru has become, we cannot just transform this "road nonsense" into "road sense"!

Firstly, we need to understand why there are no potholes on the BIAL road, on which many of us travel to the airport? Why are roads laid and maintained by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), on the city's periphery, pothole-free?

Substantial portions of the funds allocated for road resurfacing get earmarked for contractor profit, for politicos and for bill clearance, when the money should actually be spent on good quality organic binder, the asphalt bitumen used in road resurfacing. A third-party audit through an independent engineer, who should necessarily be an academician from a reputed institute like the IISc, should be made mandatory so that we reach NHAI standards for road overlay at the very least.

Even the latest gimmick -white topping, a cement concrete overlay on the existing asphalt road surface - should ensure usage of quality material to extend the life of the road by at least 10% of the normal 50-60 year lifespan of this procedure.

Harsh penalties

Secondly, road safety must be sustained and monitored, with set goals for reducing road accidents. Vulnerable road-users must be protected and vehicle safety and standards for road design and engineering must be set for ensuring uniformity and cohesiveness. The licensing system should not permit drivers without proper vetting, training or testing. Harsh penalties must be enforced for ignoring safety during the design, engineering and maintenance of roads.

Thirdly, campaigns to humanise motorists and pedestrians should encourage mutual interaction in a more humane manner. People should take their cues from looking at each other, rather than from an overload of traffic signs, so that traffic moves smoothly, and road rage and accidents decline significantly.

Lastly, traffic congestion must be reduced through more emphasis on public transport and the imposition of city centre congestion charges, once multiple public transport options are in place. The use of private vehicles should be discouraged by providing alternatives. A reduction in air pollution levels will be an additional benefit. Mumbai has half the number of vehicles, although its population is almost double that of Bengaluru.

A reduction in our traffic woes and a change in commuter culture to reflect the global city we live in will come only when the Bengaluru road-user sheds his apathy, insists on accountability, accessibility and auditability, and himself adopts a humane approach towards other road-users!

(The writer is Associate Professor, Sai Vidya Institute of Technology, Rajanukunte, Bengaluru)

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