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Chennai’s mobility network at crossroads

V Sumantran | Updated on September 11, 2018 Published on September 11, 2018

The city’s blueprint to enhance public transit is attractive, but meticulous planning and execution hold the key

Each city is unique and deserves to be served by a bespoke mobility architecture, suited to its geography and population characteristics. As a coastal city with a relatively flat topology, dotted with wetlands, Chennai has many favourable attributes. Reinforcing the thesis that urban development and mobility architectures are symbiotic, the city has grown preferentially towards its southern suburbs, mostly along the suburban rail corridor that extended to Vandalur.

While some pockets of the city remain very densely populated, in recent years, the majority of the city has experienced “alarming” rates of urban sprawl.

Reflecting this expansion, the boundaries of city administration were further expanded to cover 8,900 sq.km in 2018 (compared to 1,190 sq.km previously) to form the Greater Chennai Corporation. This renders Chennai’s expanse twice as large as Mumbai’s.

While the desired goal of densification is enshrined in the city’s development agenda, in practice, this has been thwarted by an unholy nexus of builders and issuers of permits, in the opinion of a seasoned administrator. Thankfully, growing awareness and activism have led to nascent efforts to salvage encroached wetlands and avoid a repetition of the city’s inundation by monsoon flooding. Unless this is backed by a resolve to limit sprawl, no quantum of investment in technology and mobility solutions can render Chennai’s mobility architecture to be economical and environmentally responsible.

Heterogeneity of travel modes

Historically, Chennai had been endowed with a relatively good transport network. The combination of a city-wide bus system complementing the suburban rail supported the city’s industrial growth in the 1960s. Yet, by the 1980s, these were overwhelmed by continued growth of the city and its population.

Lagging transit infrastructure coincided with the unshackling of India’s auto industry and, as a result, commuters soon turned to personal transport — initially two-wheelers and later cars.

As a result, between 1995 and 2015, the modal share of public transit declined while motorised vehicle population grew by 840 per cent to serve a population that had increased by 70 per cent.

The city’s bus service is overburdened and financially strapped. Its autorickshaws have proven notoriously difficult to manage due to political patronage and seldom operate in accordance with sanctioned fare structure. Symbols earmarking bike paths have sprouted in many thoroughfares with little or no protection from poorly regulated traffic. As a result, few bicyclists dare to venture on them. Even new ventures that have emerged to offer easy bike rentals are floundering when bike use is hazardous.

The city’s blueprint to enhance modal variety is impressive. The expanded suburban rail lines are to be supported by the elevated MRTS rail corridor and the new network of metro-rail.

The city’s bus service is also seeing expansion, augmented by affordable share-auto vans. For affluent commuters, ride-hailed taxis from Uber and Ola have proven very popular.

The role of connectivity

The importance of modal connectivity, emphasised in this series, is evident by its absence. The new metro-rail operates at low utilisation due to a combination of high travel cost and poor connectivity to secondary modes. The predominantly radial networks are not effectively connected with lateral lines. Few bus stops are aligned to metro-rail or MRTS stations.

Share-autos that can form a valuable secondary transport mode operate only in limited corridors and in a sort of a grey economy and outside regulated space.

In most localities, pavements that should facilitate easy connections to bus, train and metro-rail stations are non-existent or usurped by hawkers, power transformers or parking encroachment. Fixing issues in connectivity will go a long way in rendering public transit attractive and effective.

Inducting intelligent systems

Chennai is known for its information technology and software prowess and is not lagging in ideas about intelligent systems for mobility and traffic management. In practice, a 2014 contract awarded to create an integrated traffic management system, with high-resolution video cameras at road intersections has yielded little.

A fresh start was announced in 2018, with financial aid from Japan’s JICA, to implement traffic management and analytics across 435 intersections as well as the city’s bus transit operations.

Apart from improved traffic flow, the project also seeks to improve traffic enforcement. The innovation ecosystem is buzzing with entrepreneurs readying multi-modal travel apps to serve commuters.

In parallel, changes to policies and regulations are promised. After years of operating in silos, efforts are under way to bring the MRTS rail system under the umbrella of metro-rail.

A “smart card” is also expected to allow commuters to travel across modes with ease. The metro-rail administration is also seeking to engage share-auto operators to address first-mile and last-mile travel.

After years of dialogue, lateral bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors are anticipated to improve connectivity to the radial road and rail corridors.

Haphazard parking on city streets that hinder traffic flow are to be transformed with parking garages that will dynamically transmit information about empty spaces and automate fee payment.

To quote Einstein, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not”. Too many cities have seen impressive theoretical proposals wither in application. Chennai’s “on-paper” plans deserve to be thoroughly analysed, meticulously planned and diligently executed.

In its ascendance in the latter half of the twentieth century, Chennai was a promising target for industrial and commercial investment. The city could boast about emerging as the Detroit of the East and fostered the creation of many manufacturing, software and service jobs.

The blush is off the rose and Chennai will need to steer itself again to a position of attractiveness for people and jobs. Fixing its dysfunctional mobility architecture will go a long way to that objective. Our proposed framework can guide the manifold initiatives to systematically address the elements of increased modal heterogeneity, inter-modal connectivity, leveraging data, information and intelligence, and aligning policies and regulations.

As Sartre observed, “We are our choices”. Let’s hope our administrators and mobility service providers will make the right choices and restore the blush of Chennai’s rose.

The writer is Chairman, Celeris Technologies

Published on September 11, 2018
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