Caught in planning chaos

Thirteen years ago, when the Jayadeva Flyover was launched with much fanfare, did anyone foresee a Metro line crossing that junction? Ten years ago, when the purple line went overhead on MG Road, did an interchange station emerge on the planning map?

Absolutely unlikely, because a city of 1.3 crore people is at the mercy of a system that just cannot think beyond the next five to 10 years. Urban planning is a messy, adhoc labyrinth of systemic adjustments, where commute concern is an afterthought.

Consider this: The Jayadeva structure took four years to build and cost Rs 21 crore of taxpayers’ money. The demolition in phases has forcibly put commuters and nearby residents in a twister of woes. No questions asked and no responsibility fixed, but citizens are expected to gulp it all down for development.

No method

Fancy elevated corridors, fantastic pod-taxi lanes and superfast signal-free corridors are conjured up, packaged and steamrolled through public opposition. But as past experiences show, there is no method in this madness.

In K R Puram, the cable-stayed bridge was once projected as an engineering marvel. The much-hyped design with Japanese technology had the city’s big bosses pumped up with much pride. And then came the Outer Ring Road (ORR), and a vehicular explosion that reduced the bridge to the city’s biggest traffic bottleneck.

Minus pillars, the bridge’s poor design meant vehicles would have just one underpass. Located right where thousands of passengers exit the K R Puram Railway Station, the underpass is today an inglorious mess. The entire Outer Ring Road comes to a complete halt at this point, as surging crowds struggle hard to cross over.

Colossal waste

Today, infrastructure experts have even suggested demolishing the bridge to decongest ORR. What a fall from grace for a mega structure, inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in February 2003 and adjudged the ‘Most Outstanding National Bridge’ by the Indian Institution of Bridge Engineers.

This short-sightedness is not going away soon. “With three-year bureaucratic cycles and five-year government cycles, we end up doing mostly adhoc interventions to earn brownie points for political mileage,” notes Ashish Verma, Associate Professor, Transportation Systems Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science.

Nobody wants to look beyond these cycles. The Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) has had four to five managing directors in the last few years. Accordingly, as Verma points out, interventions would also turn short-sighted.

Dedicated bus lanes

Does the new state government’s push for dedicated bus lanes fall in the same category? The project is this: guided by the state transport department, civic agencies and the traffic police, 12 tentative routes have been identified in high-density corridors across the city.

A pilot is to be launched on the stretch from Tin Factory on Old Madras Road to Central Silk Board along the ORR from November 1. On paper, this looks fine. But did a proper study of the traffic situation on the ground precede the decision-making?

Years back, propelled by a bus-lane overdrive, planners had earmarked a central lane on the ORR. Twin flyovers on the ORR stretch from K R Puram to Iblur junction were testimony to this thinking. But the plan changed, and a Metro line was quickly worked out between Silk Board Junction and K R Puram. It is another story that the project is yet to kick off.

Holistic approach

Varma contends that any mobility infrastructure project conjured up without a holistic approach and sound groundwork is bound to run into trouble. “Look at the Metro project. Every phase, every stretch has been delayed. Inevitably, we end up killing the benefits of a long-term vision.”

How far into the future should that long-term vision be? “Heavy infrastructure such as the Metro and suburban rail should be planned with at least 25-30 years in mind. Only then will the solution be sustainable.”

The approach cannot be only point-based or network-based. “Urban mobility planning mandates a combination of both. It should be a mix of bottom-up thinking with identification of specific pain points and a top-down intervention with clear higher order goals,” Verma explains.

Point-based interventions

Point-based, short interventions will just not work in the transport sector. “The amount of investment is huge. The elevated corridor project was estimated to cost over Rs 33,000 crore. The Metro costs Rs 350 crore for every kilometre overground and Rs 500 crore/km underground.”

Can a developing economy afford to be so lax about investing such massive amounts without rigorous planning and futuristic vision? A former Minister was in a tearing hurry to push a pod-taxi project along Old Airport Road. Mobility experts cried foul contending that such taxis can never be a mass transport option.

In the process, a Metro line, originally planned along the stretch was shelved. Today, underpasses and flyovers are being built there to ensure a signal-free corridor. To help pedestrians cross over, skywalks are coming up. But did anyone ask the walkers why they prefer to just walk across the road at grade?

Band-aid solution

The current approach to traffic planning is to adopt a bandaid solution. “It is like fixing obesity by loosening your belt. No one talks about de-motoring or interventions based on data analysis,” notes urban architect Naresh Narasimhan.

The deeply entrenched politician-bureaucrat-transport planner nexus ensures that projects are approved without any public consultation. The motive is always instant cash-flow. Naresh suggests an alternative: “There is a need to step back and design the city backwards, and then envision how Bengaluru can be in 2047, a hundred years after freedom.”

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