Urban Transport in Bangalore - The Worsening Crisis

Traffic congestion in Bangalore Public Transport in Bangalore

PREAMBLE

QUALITY OF LIFE IS A GOAL IN ITSELF. IT IS ALSO CRITICAL IN THE ‘KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY’, FOR ATTRACTING AND RETAINING HIGHLY QUALIFIED AND CREATIVE INDIVIDUALS

Efficient and reliable transportation systems are crucial for a city to sustain high growth rates. All services and manufacturing industries require people movers to bring and take workers and connect production facilities to the logistics chain. Unfortunately, growth, a direct result of improved economic conditions, brings with it several negatives along with its many benefits, and Bangalore is perhaps one of the prime candidate cities to demonstrate the adverse effects of growth. Very high levels of traffic congestion, pollution and safety hazards experienced in the 1970s and ‘80s in Kolkata have demonstrated the dangers of un-restructured public sector combined with un-regulated private providers for public transport services.

Priority lanes for buses on streets can reduce passenger cars & private modes of travel to a great extent

Limiting or stifling growth is neither avoidable nor necessary and to facilitate some degree of orderly city development, the Bangalore Development Authority, or BDA, the nodal planning agency had in late 2007, prepared a Comprehensive Development Plan, titled CDP-2015 that covers an extremely large area, almost the whole of Bangalore district. This extremely large coverage of land areas in the latest CDP is the result of an earlier such attempt by BDA when the previous CDP had to be drastically revised as the population anticipated for 1991 had been reached ten years earlier, by 1981 itself. It is relevant here to emphasize that the CDP/s are mostly zoning documents and do little to address congestion, particularly street congestion levels within the city as they have no bearing on transport matters nor do they provide recommendations for transport development in the newly added areas or the existing city areas. Thus, the city has not formalized a comprehensive urban transport strategy linked to an urban development strategy.

Pressures from growth leading to increases in population with land scarcity and increasing living costs are aligned with development patterns prevalent in most developing economies, and are unavoidable in this context, indeed for all cities and urban areas in this country and elsewhere, and therefore, fall outside the scope of this paper.

The resultant problems with street congestion, excessive traffic, difficulties for daily travel, poor and time consuming mobility options, air pollution, poor quality of living standards and the unsafe road and pedestrian conditions with undisciplined traffic are some of the areas that accompany growth that can be tackled successfully with corrective steps, though the task can be formidable to eradicate all of them completely.

Most of these have been problems for the city for several decades now, though they were not as much in severity earlier. Some city residents and welfare organizations have been attempting serious focus on various types of solutions since the local administration has clearly not been up to the task, despite some efforts to wean people away from private vehicles by introduction of better quality, low floor air-conditioned buses for the better-off commuters.

Bangalore’s economy is actually much broader than its international “IT and Technology Hub” image. Most employment is in fact provided by trade and commerce, manufacturing and traditional activities like silk weaving and garments. Its road system is diffuse and complicated. This is in tandem with the fact that rail lines in the city were neither designed nor operated to cater for urban and regional traffic. So, the city’s growth and mobility patterns have been very much road-dependent from the start.

It is also noteworthy that even though the maximum permitted FSI is limited to under 4.0, Bangalore and indeed almost all other cities in India, suffer from severe street congestion. In sharp contrast, cities such as New York or Hong Kong where an FSI of the order of 16.0 or over is quite common, street congestion levels are much better controlled, primarily due to far more efficient public transport and the resulting travel habits of residents who rely mainly on them. Allocation of street space based on local needs is another important factor that helps reduce congestion levels.

This is a first cut attempt to examine these issues in some detail and to explore possibilities for solutions. The subject is vast and complex. It has therefore been necessary to define the limits under purview to facilitate addressing only those problems that might have feasible solutions.

CITY TRAVEL – AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE DEMANDS

It is very simple to have a city with great quality of life … It only has to be designed for people, much more than for cars

It must first be noted that despite rapid levels of motorization, the split of daily travel by mode is still not dominated by motorcycles and cars, but by public transport services and walking. According to recent surveys, walking and bicycling carry about 11% of all trips, and public transport carries about 42%. Individual motor vehicles carry a lesser 36% (Source: Comprehensive Traffic and Transport Survey, 2007). The visual evidence of unrestrained dominance by 2-wheelers and cars on the traffic scene, though a matter for serious concern, is rather misleading. This is very different from the mid-1960s, when bicycles accounted for almost 70% of all traffic.

One of the reasons for the importance of non-motorized and public transport modes is that economic growth has left many people far behind. The new wealth is in sharp contrast to concurrent poverty, with inequalities deepened by skewed growth processes, or new ones generated as rural migrants pour into the city.

In spatial terms, many of the lowest income people live in informal settlements in peri-urban areas, in older city slums, or encroach any place where development by leapfrogging has left some land unused. It is not that lower-income groups have not benefited from economic growth. Many did, but growth for this stratum of residents is in the informal sector, low-paid and unstable jobs held by unskilled workers in construction, hospitality, the new informal services such as manual security monitoring, vehicle driving and low skill manufacturing.

Different income strata have different expectations of the urban transport system. The poorer sections, employed generally as unskilled labour, expect very low fares. Lack of conveniences is not of much concern for this group, though they expect quick travel with minimal delays.

Rising incomes have also increased service expectations of some public transport passengers, especially if they own or aspire to own a motor vehicle. They expect higher-quality services, easy access, a comfortable seat, high travel speed and air conditioning (during hot climate). Since the majority of public transport services operate on city streets, public transport passengers are also interested in the performance of the road system, as are public transport operators – Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation, or BMTC; and Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation, or KSRTC.

Those owning individual motor vehicles, be they households or businesses (the latter including goods vehicles) expect a good road system with well-maintained pavements, efficient traffic control, high travel speeds, easily available parking, etc..

In terms of relations between motorization and incomes, car-based motorization is linked to higher and high-middle income households (in addition to business owners). Motorcycles on the other hand are bought by low-middle and low-income households. From transport planning point of view, two-wheelers are generally used by people who were ‘normally’ major users of public transport services, but opted out due to deteriorating punctuality and inconveniences with use of public buses for commuting.

This simple segmentation of the travel market in Bangalore does not capture what actually takes place on the ground. For example, the high-tech and engineering businesses have quite different transport habits and requirements than those with traditional businesses. The former are highly motorized, their job and familial networks are spread widely (well beyond Bangalore, in fact), whereas the traditional businesses are more location-bound, with kin businesses locating in close proximity, and walking retaining importance for interaction between partners and clients. These businesses may also be concerned for the ease and cost of longer-distance urban transport by motor vehicles, but within their large activity areas they do not mind congestion, but actually thrive on it.

This said, the worrying factor is that motorization levels are not yet close to those in other more developed parts of Asia, Europe or North America, though street congestion levels are much worse and highly chaotic, given the diffuse nature of roads with the very large number of intersections. Thus, there is a pressing need to seek solutions to meet travel demands urgently and squarely to reverse the prevailing trend of very large increases in motor vehicles on the streets.

Bus services are infrequent and slow moving, buses are hard to get on/off, are often overcrowded with uncomfortable ride quality, and often polluting. The BMTC network is diffuse, trying to connect the maximum number of origins with the maximum number of destinations to avoid transfers (this implies low frequency of service on individual routes). Some suburban rail services are in operation but frequencies and difficult access to /from stations has meant a low quality of service patronized generally by the lower income groups.

                                      

High quality pedestrian & bicycle infrastructure – Such facilities are non-existent in Indian cities. This, in part, explains why pedestrians & bicycles are often seen as obstructionists on busy streets, a long-held, biased mindset that needs to be changed.

The worst off are the pedestrians due to non-existent, or broken-down and/or obstructed and uneven sidewalks, large height differences between sidewalks and frequent driveways /alleyways, danger at street crossings and flooding in monsoon seasons. The next on the list of poorly served travellers are bicycle riders, who have no exclusive-use lanes while gradually and systematically being pushed out of busy roads by motor vehicles, be these 2-wheelers, 3-wheelers, cars or buses.

Traffic casualty data show that pedestrians are the highest group among those killed in traffic accidents. The very poor condition of pavements, low travel speeds (down now to about 13 km/h), frequent intersections, high intersection delays, and poor or non-existent parking facilities have meant that people use by-lanes or the lanes on the sides of main streets, or over sidewalks for parking, particularly to minimize delays during their trips. Traffic accidents, numbering some 7000+ per year, are also on the high side with very large no. of fatalities (more than 700 per year), over a third of these being pedestrians.

In response to these unsafe conditions, as also to generally streamline traffic within the city, the government (Traffic Police Dept.) has now embarked on a project called BTRAC (Bangalore Traffic Improvement Project), primarily to reduce accidents by a projected 30%. The project involves traffic management with Information Technology on a budget of some Rs.350 crores (78 million US$). It also includes many technology innovations and is said to be the first such initiative in the country.

Finally, and certainly not the least important aspect, a good-quality road system and good-quality public transport services are essential parts of a “package” that Bangalore would want to offer to potential investors from outside, in direct competition with other cities in India, Asia and elsewhere in the world.

A wide, pedestrianized street & wide street sidewalks in Guangzhou, China. Bangalore has no such Pedestrian facilities. Brigade road, Commercial street, Sampige road, streets around Jayanagar shopping complex, & bylanes within Chikpet, City market & Gandhinagar are similar. Vehicles must not be permitted to enter these streets & areas.

   

It must be emphasized that the city’s population growth as also the prevailing population is a mixture consisting of various income groups, with very large sections of wealthy people with cars. The mushrooming of various educational institutions coupled with job creation in the hi-tech and research industries has given rise to new demands for better and higher quality travel options that penetrate all parts and cover much larger distances, in addition to the present low-quality, low-cost mobility options that are patronized generally by the lower income groups. High quality services for the city’s comparatively larger proportion of higher income groups (when compared with other cities in India) also demand sufficient capacity and frequency for quicker mobility for these groups.

These are the same groups that are conscious of traffic speeds and delays, seek flyovers and urban expressways and demand multi-level garages in order to facilitate quicker movements with private vehicles. This growing trend has resulted in an overly accommodative response by the authorities to pro-growth forces with higher emphasis on road infrastructure development to cater to cars and two-wheelers. Though these private modes are a boon for city commuters, the consequences of offering road facilities for their primacy are unfortunately quite negative for traffic flow, safety and air pollution, and seriously impacts performance of public bus transport and it’s users.

These generalizations apart, the ranking of ‘push-away’ factors are as follows: low travel speed, lack of punctuality, poor connectivity and low frequency. Most bus users are not captive and make their modal choice on the basis of some calculus based on price, travel time, comfort, convenience, etc., most of which are hard to sustain by public transport bus services due to increasing traffic. Thus, the flight of users to private modes continues.

This unfavourable evaluation of urban transport performance may be seen as unfair by those actively involved in the operations and planning of transport systems in Bangalore. While acknowledging that valiant efforts have been made, and some real improvements achieved, it is also clear that efforts have not sufficed to keep up with loads and expectations generated by demographic and economic growth. Generally, the working hypothesis of various responses have been supply-focused rather than demand-oriented.

It is also readily acknowledged that the scale and diversity of the demands posed by this enormous growth, both by population and income increases would probably have proved taxing for most world cities, and not merely for Bangalore or any other Indian city.

STEPS BEING TAKEN BY THE AUTHORITIES – REGRESSIVE, AGAIN

The city’s road designs, laid out in the 1940s, when Bangalore had a population of less than half a million, preceded motorization, and in fact inhibited it later on. Thus, generally, the road network is underdeveloped in terms of size, structure, continuity and connectivity. The city corporation has been responding to growth in vehicle volumes by attempting to increase the capacity of road networks generally and in addition to building facilities for the neo-rich technology clusters that had begun to spring up in the south and east of the city, to meet the demands of industry.

It has most often been argued that the available street space is much too low. This position is then used to argue not only for widening and building more roads, but also for the construction of off-road public transport systems, be these Metro-rail, Commuter-rail or Mono-rail. Some argue that the road space is not the problem, but its management is. In all likelihood, both are right. The street space needs to be managed much better, and building new roads and exclusive-track public transport system is warranted in the city that has been trying to cope with traffic loads for which its network was certainly not designed. The essential questions are, of course, who is going to get the street space available at present, how much new road space is to be provided and which off-street systems are going to be built.

WHAT TYPE OF CITY DO WE WANT ? THE FRIENDLIER TO CARS A CITY IS, THE LESS HUMANE IT BECOMES. DO WE DARE OPPOSE THE CAR LOBBIES ?

        

The more recent policy approach of addition of massive new road capacity (by road widening on a large scale, building multi-grade interchanges, elevated radial roads and several expressway/s, notably the road to the new airport) without any focus on bus-based rapid transit routes is supply-oriented and traffic growth-biased. It conflicts with the principles outlined in the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP-2006) in a number of ways. It neglects mass mobility for all income groups, especially the non-motorized ones. It does not involve any use of traffic restraining tools and hence leaves street-based public transport services (the ‘work-horses’ of the city transport system) to the mercy of unrestrained competition from individual motor vehicles. Moreover, it favours the rich by massive infusion of capital into the road system, which may not be warranted for the comparatively smaller number of users who demand very large street space, whilst simultaneously ignoring the needs of other passengers who depend on public bus transport. In effect, it subsidises the richer motor vehicle owners in perpetuity whilst seriously disadvantaging public bus services.

No matter how excellent the supply side of public transport operations, services will only have as much quality as the traffic conditions will allow it to be. In the longer term, the emphasis on increasing road capacity without offering priorities to street-based public transport encourages two-wheeler and car-based urban development patterns, similar to cities in the United States where expressways and throughways had been developed almost all through the last century with very negative environmental impacts. The actual policies, as opposed to NUTP-2006 in principle, thus appear to be socially regressive, financially unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly. 

Bangalore Metro: An artist's impression of a "Namma Metro" station.

The neglect of bus-based rapid transit modes is proportional to the affection for rail-based modes, especially the Metro system. This may have to do with the larger-than-life role that railways played in India’s history and a common association of Metros with the great cities of the world. Rare is an account of urban transport in India that does not mention the Delhi Metro, despite it’s poor patronization levels. The resulting bias has an operational form with a view that railways, operating on exclusive tracks, such as the Metro system, are of better quality, whilst buses belong on the street and to connect nearby villages, implying lower service standards. When sustainable low-cost options, such as exclusive bus lanes are neglected or rejected, only the more expensive ones remain on the table. At the very least, this means that fewer corridors can be provided with quick mass-transits.

However, it is also clear now that without very high capital investments on an off-street guided rail mass transit (such as the Metro system under construction) that can add huge capacities between transport links, the city will surely be heading towards complete chaos and breakdown.

OTHER FACTORS

There are also several other factors, all interconnected, that explain this unsatisfactory state of affairs, as detailed below :

  • The state’s political establishment tends to dominate the direction of the city’s development due to it’s economic importance based largely on industry demands and this produces transport policies and investments that are not well aligned with long-term futuristic interests of the city.
  • The proliferation of state and local institutions and parastatals is unusually high, resulting in diluted regulatory /funding authority and accountability for urban transport matters. In the forest of institutions that already exist or have been created newly, no single body has been mandated to make comprehensive policy or medium-to-long term transport investment plans. Most of these institutions merely cling to pieces of the pie without co-ordination between one another in the absence of a stable umbrella agency.
  • The city has not been able to develop capacity for public transport regulation, despite formal appointment of a lead authority (BMLTA, or Bangalore Metropolitan Land Transport Authority) as recommended by NUTP-2006.
  • Large-scale investments (elevated expressways, ring roads, Metro rail, etc.) tend to get more attention than innovative, simpler and cost efficient right of way bus services on available wider roads. These biases in spending that favour large investment projects, some with dubious rationale (such as the 10km and 9km elevated toll-ways), leave large urban and social segments poorly served whilst facilitating the better-off motor vehicle owners, and encouraging more vehicle ownership.
  • The use of competitive mechanisms is underdeveloped, as is the reliance on private sector funding and the know-how. In fact, it is limited to outsourcing of some bus services, contract-based street maintenance, and a budding effort to charge for on-street parking (this last has also been suspended during the last few years, further encouraging the use of private modes for commuting).
  • The Laissez-faire attitude that continues with regard to no allocation of street space between competing types of users would result in further losses to: (a) pedestrians; (b) bicyclists; and (c) public transport vehicles.

Cars on sidewalks, or parking bays where there should be sidewalks suggest that citizens with cars are more important than those who don’t have them

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