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Growing but gridlocked: Bengaluru’s chaotic expansion

Throughout Bengaluru’s rapid growth in the past seven decades, the problem has stemmed from the constant expansion unaccompanied by systematic planning. Data shows that this could continue to pose a problem in the years to come.
Last Updated 02 March 2024, 22:48 IST

Bengaluru: On Christmas Eve last year, Bengaluru’s Bellary Road was gridlocked in a chaotic traffic jam, leaving many passengers struggling to reach the airport on time. The Phoenix Mall of Asia, which opened in October 2023, had hosted several special programmes, inviting crowds of people. It was clear from the flood of cars and the crowding of the approach road that the organisers did not anticipate such a situation. 

“Even without the new mall, commuting across the city has always been a nightmare,” says Adam Johnson (name changed). “We have to travel 15 km to Whitefield every week and leave early in the morning to avoid traffic. This cuts our commute time down to 25 minutes,” he adds. 

“But on our way back, due to the traffic, it takes more than an hour in the blazing afternoon heat,” he says. 

The allotment of land for commercial use often does not account for public road use. “The roads around Malleswaram’s Mantri Mall are always crowded. From going at about 20 km/h, when I reach this junction, my vehicle speed reduces to 5km/h,” says Suraj (name changed), a resident of the city. The issue, he explains, is its proximity to the metro, a major bus stand and a petrol pump. 

“There is also no footpath on one side of the road, not accounting for pedestrians,” he says. Combined, these issues result in bottlenecks in traffic inflow. 

Experts say that commercial projects need to be evaluated by accessibility and not just by the car parking capacity. However, most commercial projects do not assess if the roads can accommodate the traffic that they generate.  

Throughout Bengaluru’s rapid growth in the past seven decades, the problem has stemmed from the constant expansion unaccompanied by systematic planning. Data shows that this could continue to pose a problem in the years to come. A study conducted jointly by scientists from the National Institute of Engineering and IIT-Kharagpur predicted that the city will grow 58% by 2025.

Adding to these concerns, the city consistently sees numerous new residential projects within city limits and outskirts. A 2023 report by Knight Frank shows that Bengaluru has seen sales of 54,000 commercial units. In 2022, this was 52,000 units, and the trend is upward post-pandemic.

“If you compare it with the rest of the market, Bengaluru has been standing out among the country's major metros like Pune, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, etc,” says Shantanu Mazumder, executive director, Bengaluru, Knight Frank India. Bengaluru ranks lower only to the National Capital Region and Mumbai in terms of sale numbers (60,002 and 86,871 units respectively). Bengaluru was among the top cities that latched on to the information technology wave that happened 20 years ago.

Today, Bengaluru’s commercial real estate take-up is the highest among cities in India. Almost 33% of commercial units were sold in Bengaluru, as per reports by various real estate research firms.

Over the past two decades, the city has absorbed migrants from various states and provided employment and livelihood opportunities. The climate is an added advantage for Bengaluru even today. 

With so much of an influx, the city is bursting with issues. Road infrastructure and water scarcity are major problems that Bengaluru is facing today. 

The tip of the iceberg

Bengaluru’s haphazard growth and lack of planning are the root causes behind most of these problems — be it traffic or water. The city's development has followed the ‘Revised Master Plan 2015’, released in 2007, which specifies development regulations and land use planning in the city. 

“Bengaluru is in such a mess because, for the last three decades, we followed a flawed master plan — we must realise this. The dumbest thing for us to do is to follow a failed master plan even when we know it is not working,” says Ravichandar V, an urbanist based in Bengaluru. He has been active in Bengaluru's development planning space for 23 years. The many court cases on commercial projects in residential areas and encroached public spaces stand testimony to this statement. 

Unfortunately, Bengaluru does not seem to have a choice. The finalisation and implementation of the next master plan, which is supposed to take place once every 15 years, has been delayed for various reasons, leading to policy paralysis of urban development. Amidst this, the Karnataka government passed a Bill last week that allows developers to construct additional built-up areas after paying a premium for a higher floor area ratio (FAR) — the ratio of the total plot area to the total built-up area.

Another problem he sees is the lack of unified vision between the various agencies that manage the city’s development. “Agencies do not see eye to eye with the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) on the plan. Each agency has its agenda of what to do in the next 25 years,” he adds. 

The implementation of the urban plan is a major issue, he says. “On paper, academically and theoretically, the master plans in BDA and Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority (BMRDA) limits seem flawless. However, on the ground, we have our challenges. Bureaucratic inefficiency and political influence cause problems which lead to the flouting of the master plan,” says an official preferring anonymity.

Anjali Karol Mohan, an urban and regional planner, explains the phenomenon. “To maximise profits, people build extra floors in residential areas without provisions for parking within their compounds. So a building with six or eight families has no parking space.” 

“This is a common issue. We bought two units in an apartment building that was constructed according to regulations. However, soon after that, the builders constructed two additional floors that are not legally approved,” says Praveen Kumar, an IT professional. 

Even then, these units were sold within a week due to high demand in the area. Now, the residents are facing a familiar conundrum: Lack of parking space. “Initially the basement parking area was planned to only house the ‘legal’ floors’ vehicles. However, now, those buyers are demanding parking spaces too. Further, many families have two or three cars and several two-wheelers,” The residents association has been engaged in unresolved debates over the parking spaces for the past few months.

He points to the multi-storey and multi-building complexes from major builders currently being developed in the vicinity for high demand for real estate. 

Anjali says that the intervention needs to focus on two aspects. “The first one is more immediate, perhaps reactive, doing what is necessary: Leveraging low-hanging fruit such as strict regulations for street-side parking. The other is planning for systemic change by proactive engagement,” she explains.

Water issues 

Supplying water that meets the needs of this growing metropolis has become another major worry. “Even before the summer has fully started, our apartment has begun facing water issues,” says Sana (name changed), who lives in a mid-sized apartment complex in Hennur. 

The management procures three water tankers every day to meet water requirements in the complex. However, this month, due to water scarcity and high demand, tanker suppliers only deliver on alternate days. “To meet the demand, suppliers have even asked for an advance of Rs one lakh, but the building association has paid Rs 40,000 to maintain a regular supply,” she says.

On average, a water tanker costs Rs 1,000 now, a jump from previous years when it cost Rs 500 to Rs 700. “However, many apartments pay close to Rs 1,500 in different localities, for a single tanker,” says Sana.

he Bengaluru metro plies on the purple line, which connects Challaghatta and Whitefield.

he Bengaluru metro plies on the purple line, which connects Challaghatta and Whitefield.

Credit: DH Photo/S K Dinesh

While wastewater is treated in most apartments in compliance with building regulations, the treated water is rarely ever used, says a BBMP official. While the government looks for alternative water sources, there is an immediate need to focus on the use of treated water, he adds.

Even independent homes that rely on borewells are uncertain about water availability in the near future. Out of  10,955 public borewells in the city, 1,214 of them have run dry. In another 3,700 borewells have gone down significantly.  

“There will be cuts to the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) water supply also soon. We do not seem to have a plan for water use when there is a rainfall deficit. Authorities only seem to show concern when the problem cannot be ignored,” says Kashinath V G (name changed), a civil engineer in Bengaluru. 

Decongestion

Things have started to ease on the traffic front in BMRDA-administered areas in the last three years, say some.“The city's metro network is only second to that of Delhi NCR. It will become the largest metro when Phase 3 and Phase 4 are completed,” Mazumder says.

According to Mazumder, projects like the 280.8-km Satellite Town Ring Road (STRR) and the 74-km Peripheral Ring Road (PRR) will help ease traffic and smoothen freight movement. He sees the emphasis on developing PRR and STRR into major commercial hubs as a step in the right direction.

Metro connectivity will be a game changer when it comes to decongestion. After the metro reached Whitefield, there was a 20 to 30% reduction in road traffic, as per traffic police data. 

“We need dynamic master plans with a long-term vision, and the scope to revisit them in shorter intervals for course correction. The goals of bettering health services, education and mobility will remain the same but the tactics for achieving them should change based on what has worked and what has not,” says Ravichandar.

Anjali bats for a master plan that integrates mobility and employs other agencies such as the BWSSB, Bangalore Electricity Supply Company Limited (BESCOM), Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) or the municipality, Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) and Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL).

“The master plan should go beyond the prescription of land use for larger areas and should look at specific demarcated local areas. The master plan cannot be a one-time exercise,” says Anjali. It has to be continuous,” she adds.

She says more thought should go into conceiving long-term solutions. “Clearly, a flyover, underpass or tunnel will not solve the problem in the long run. Around 1997, the Town Hall to Sirsi Circle flyover was proposed. During a public consultation, people told the government they were only pushing the problem from one place to another,” she says. This prediction came true after the flyover was constructed. 

Sources say that the latest master plan captures the current realities on the ground in the base map. 

Rakesh Singh, additional chief secretary of the Urban Development department, says that the lower the number of planning areas, the easier it is to manage them. He feels the BDA should expand beyond its current limits to include parts of the BMRDA areas to accommodate the increased growth. “There is a need to adjust the zoning regulations, the width of the road, adjusting commercial activities, large apartments and layout locations to ensure that there is no traffic chaos,” he says.

Considering the scale and trajectory of Bengaluru’s growth, and data showing it will only rise exponentially in the years to come, the city’s logjam only stands to get more complicated. It is critical that urban development agencies coordinate efforts, course correct and implement holistic, hyperlocal plans.

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(Published 02 March 2024, 22:48 IST)

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