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Road Infrastructure 101: How not to build a liveable, sustainable city

On Twitter I came across someone lamenting a recently announced plan to build more flyovers in some Indian city (it matters not which city as this is a common phenomenon across the country). The tweet pointed out that increasing road infrastructure for private vehicles only encourages more private vehicles and it's a zero sum game. Of course, Twitter being what it is, someone immediately took umbrage, accusing the person of wanting to deny economically/socially disadvantaged people from climbing up the ladder and having access to their own personal vehicle. In short, keeping the have nots where they are while the haves continue to enjoy their privileged life.

As an argument that is a poor one. Firstly, the lack of flyovers is not the immediate obstacle for the poor in accessing private transport. So, at least at present, it is the rich who benefit the most from public money invested in flyovers. Secondly, the point that those who oppose flyovers, road widening, and cars on the road are making is that everyone needs to take sustainable modes of transport i.e walk/cycle/public transport.

If one stops and thinks about it for a minute, it is obvious. One doesn't need data to see and experience the growing number of two-wheelers and cars on the road, the worsening situation in terms of road crashes, traffic congestion, air and noise pollution, though data clearly supports this understanding. It is also recognized that our current road use patterns and habits are unfair and inequitable to vulnerable groups - the elderly, children, women, and persons with disabilities and of course the poor. Everyone must have equal access to clean, safe, comfortable, affordable mobility and walk/cycle/public transport are the only options that tick off all the right boxes. So much so that globally and nationally it is acknowledged that things have to change. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call upon cities to shift to sustainable mobility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport, reduce crashes and congestion, and make our cities more liveable. Nationally too we have the National Urban Transport Policy, 2014 that says much the same. State transport policy notes, city-level NMT policies, mobility policies etc all echo these ideas.

Yet we refuse to walk the talk. Governments, a key stakeholder in ensuring these policies fructify on the ground, continue to adamantly push pro-private vehicle infrastructure. The latest example of this is the Smart Urban Roads project of the Tamil Nadu Highways Department.

Since January 2023, the highways department has been holding a series of stakeholder consultations on this project. CAG was invited to all, and attended all but one of these meetings. This is part of the World Bank funded (i.e loan) USD 150 million project to support Chennai in delivering seamless and safe citizen-centric services (including mobility). 

The World Bank's press release claims that the emphasis within the mobility space would be on expanding walk/cycle/public bus services, ensuring integration across modes, and enhancing women's safety in public transport and public spaces.

In the three consultations that CAG participated in, the project consultant (L&T) made an hour-long presentation, followed by an open house for questions, comments, and inputs from participants. While the effort to seek inputs is commendable, the presentation raised several concerns.

The main issue was the clear, unsubtle message that motorists had first dibs on the road and that other road users were not entitled to any space. It was repeatedly mentioned that the existing 6 lanes of space would be kept for motor vehicles and if there was space beyond the 6 lanes, pedestrians would be factored in. What was interesting was that cyclists didn’t get even a mention in any of the plans.

Invisibilising pedestrians

The plans presented invariably had 8-10 foot overbridges pencilled in. While there are no studies to provide the data, anecdotal evidence indicates that pedestrians do not favour foot overbridges or subways. One aspect of course is the design - there is a fair amount of climbing involved, the steps are not even in height or width; cleanliness is an issue; and safety is a huge problem especially for women. Even for a fit, able-bodied young man, crossing at grade (on the road surface) is preferred because it is less effort. Considering the hostile conditions - weather, traffic,etc - it is no wonder that pedestrians don’t want to expend extra energy. Yet the government continues to build these foot overbridges /subways.

At the consultations, this blinkered view continued to be defended. CAG questioned the safety of these foot over bridges saying that these are removed from the sight of vision of motorists, shops etc and so there is an added physical safety issue. We were told that CCTV cameras would be installed which the police would use to respond to a crime committed. However, there was no answer to the fact that no police force would be able to respond in time to prevent a crime and wouldn’t it be better to put in place an road environment which makes it difficult for a crime to occur rather than just rely on measures to reach justice to victims?

The underlying message of building foot overbridges, of course, is that pedestrians are interlopers on the road and must be brushed aside (to foot overbridges and subways) so that they don’t slow down metal boxes (cars) on the road.

Cyclists must be discouraged

Another fascinating thread was the complete absence of discourse on cyclists. This was brushed aside on the grounds that there was no space (current motorist traffic requires 10 lanes but is making do with 6 lanes) and that if we build dedicated cycle lanes then the unthinkable would happen - more cyclists would use the road!

The last straw was that buses too were not discussed in depth. In one consultation, a bus lane was mooted (hurrah!) but it was placed in the fast lane (closest to the median) while the bus stops would continue to be on the left extreme. The reason for doing this was because they didn’t want to assign space for bus stops in the carriage way and of course have to give at grade crossing so pedestrians could reach the bus stop. Buses, they opined, could not continue to drive on the left lane because they would keep stopping and would slow the traffic. None were quite convinced of these arguments about the buses.

Clearly, the consultant and the highways department had missed the bus on liveable cities, sustainability, SDGs, and national/state/city policies. Their idea for these roads would lead us all to wide roads (with some flyovers thrown in) chock-a-block with cars and two-wheelers, emitting greenhouse gases accompanied by a cacophony of horns. Utopia indeed!

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