Costs, functionality clearly demanded an underground option

Elevated metro ruined city’s beauty, shrunk its roads

Namma Metro was envisioned to decongest the clogged roads of Bengaluru thus making commuting in the city convenient to the people. But by going overground, the Metro has virtually destroyed the aesthetics of the city with its towering pillars narrowing the already crowded roads. The Metro stations have bulldozed through the city’s once cherished greenery. As the piers felled trees in their thousands, invaded precious road space and triggered traffic congestion on chaotic, space-starved roads, a question loomed disturbingly unanswered: Why was the entire project not taken underground?

The standard, official explanation relied on economic viability: The underground option would be three times costlier. But an independent cost analysis worked out in May 2009, barely two years after construction began, told a different story.

The incremental cost of taking bulk of the Metro below ground was estimated at Rs 4,000 crore. This was much lower than the Rs 7,000 crore for a predominantly overground solution. Reckoning a 30-35 year loan period, this worked out to an affordable annual State Budget impact of Rs 150-200 crore per year. Why then was this option not explored?

Beyond costs, functionality clearly demanded an underground option for seamless transfer of commuters at interchange stations. One classic case of violating this obvious design requirement is the M G Road stretch of the Baiyappanahalli – Mysuru Road purple line.

Despite strong opposition from urban designers, architects and old Bengalureans, the Metro pillars swept through the once-cherished green aesthetics of M G Road. The iconic boulevard, famed for its picturesque walkways, was demolished. The station that now dominates the road has been roundly criticised as a monstrosity, failing even on basic functionality.

But at the core of this design disaster lie a poorly thought-out integration with the Gottigere-Nagawara line that passes under Brigade Road and Kamaraj Road. To switch from the underground station of this line on Kamaraj Road to the overground M G Road station, commuters will have to walk at least 500 metres and cross five levels.

This is a far cry from the underground Majestic interchange station. Here, passengers seamlessly transfer between the purple and green lines, crossing just one level. Namma Metro’s overground choice for the bulk of its alignments implies the Majestic station luxury cannot be replicated elsewhere. If the Metro destroyed M G Road’s aesthetics forever, the impact on Lalbagh and the famed Lakshman Rao boulevard has been no less. As urban planner and a long-time campaigner for the underground option V Ravichander points out, “The character of the entire neighbourhood, including the Lalbagh-South End stretch, has been killed.”

In Indiranagar, traders on the busy CMH Road had vociferously protested the alignment there. Their grouse: The Metro pillars would eat into the road space, spark traffic congestion and severely hamper their businesses. The traders wanted the line to take the Old Madras Road towards Halasuru. But the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) Underground could have been the alternative. “CMH Road has now become very narrow. Business was booming, and there were about 1,300 outlets before the Metro here. Only 400 exist now. It was claimed that once the line becomes functional, businesses will flourish again, surrounding areas will improve. Nothing has improved,” notes N S Ramamohan, president, CHM Road Shops and Establishments Association.

The Detailed Project Report (DPR), says Ramamohan, had mandated at least 30ft on either side of the pillars to be left free. “There is hardly 20-22 ft now. If the Metro had gone underground, there would have been ample space on the road even for a dedicated bus lane.”

An oft-quoted rationale behind the overground choice is the cheaper cost per kilometre. But underground tunnels need not be aligned to the roads.

“They could just cut across. The Baiyappanahalli to M G Road stretch could have been reduced by at least two-three kilometres this way,” contends Ramamohan.

Applying this alignment method to the entire first phase of the Metro network could have potentially reduced the total cost. Urban architect Naresh Narasimhan agrees. “Metro should have gone where the people are, not where the roads are. The alignments should have been decided based on a predictive demographic density map of Bengaluru,” he explains.

But BMRCL’s first Managing Director K N Srivastava points out that the best catchment area for a Metro line is along existing roads. “You have to take Metro there,” he says. As for the decision to take the line overground on M G Road, he cites the prevalence of hard granite in the terrain underneath. Yet, this did not stop the Metro from drilling a tunnel through Cubbon Park or near Vidhana Soudha, barely a kilometre away.

However, Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy had regretted the ‘overground’ decision taken on the advice of his officers during his earlier tenure. Responding to a query on Metro’s destruction of M G Road’s aesthetic beauty, he had publicly articulated that regret at an interaction arranged by DH earlier this year.

The unilateral decision to take the elevated route has reduced the city to a mega construction site, says Narasimhan. “At least inside the Outer Ring Road area, Metro should have been underground. The original idea for a Metro was first proposed by Shankar Nag to the then Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde in 1988, and later mentioned in the 1995-2005 plan. Underground was considered the best option.”

From a long-term perspective, the underground option is a no-brainer, reasons Ravichander. “When you go underground, you give more options overground. The median space becomes available. The footprint of stations is much lower. Future-day integration with other lines becomes easier. The overground Metro line kills street life, neighbourhood life,” he notes.

Across Bengaluru, the pillars have taken away an entire lane from the space-starved, jam-packed roads. This implies a reduction of 3,000 Passenger Car Units (PCU) per hour, as established by a study of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Peak-hour traffic congestions on CMH Road, Halasuru, Vijayanagar and other areas are proof enough of this impact on road capacity. Envisioned from a 50-100-year standpoint, a smartly planned, designed and built ‘underground’ Namma Metro could have scored high on functionality, aesthetics, durability and even cost. Will lessons be learnt in time to effect a change in strategy as Namma Metro speeds ahead into the future?

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Elevated metro ruined city’s beauty, shrunk its roads

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