The case against flyovers

From AJAI SREEVATSAN, Hindu Times Oct 6 2014

15 years after Chennai inaugurated a string of 9 flyovers, the state’s other million-plus cities look to emulate the model. Is it the best way forward?

Over the past decade, the State has spent over Rs.1,550 crore erecting flyovers and grade separators, according to information obtained through the Right to Information Act.

Chennai, which has long coveted the ‘city of flyovers’ tag, cornered a major chunk of the investment — with the city playing host to all 21 elevated urban corridors now open to traffic in the State.

With Erode, Coimbatore and Madurai set to get their first grade separator in a couple of years, it is instructive to look at the experience of Chennai — a city whose flyover dreams began with Gemini Circle in 1973 and got a new lease of life in the late 1990s when a string of nine flyovers were built 15 years ago.

For Rs.1,550 crore, the State could instead have bought more than 7,000 public transport buses or laid more than 2,000 km of dedicated cycle lanes or built an extensive bus rapid transit system covering 150 km. So, were the investments in flyovers worth it?

If Chennai is taken as an example, the boom in flyover construction has resulted in the addition of a mere 12.4 km of extra road capacity over the last decade. The cost: Rs.1,144 crore.

Despite costing 4-5 times a normal road, flyovers don’t resolve the problem of traffic congestion either.

It is clear individual flyovers are not a viable solution at all for a growing city,” said T.T. Kesavan, a retired Highways Chief Engineer. “It only shifts the problem from one place to another.” “The mistakes we have made in the city should not be repeated in Madurai or Coimbatore or Tiruchi.”

Chennai’s flyover boom may also have had very little to do with traffic improvement in the first place. In the late 1990s, when the Traffic Action Plan was prepared for the city, the brain behind it was the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), say senior retired officials. It organised seminars in hotels and conducted public opinion surveys and traffic studies, said a senior member of the traffic committee constituted by the then Mayor, M.K. Stalin. “They even put some seed money,” he said.

The investments made by the automobile industry paid off. By 2012, Chennai’s per capita ownership of cars was second in the country, beating even Mumbai and Bangalore.

Studies across the world have established that flyovers and elevated roads tend to “induce” new traffic because of the illusion of extra road space, and that is what happened in Chennai, experts say.  The number of vehicles on Chennai’s roads shot up dramatically since the late 1990s, and traffic snarls have become a daily reality.

Madhav Pai, director of the Mumbai-based EMBARQ, a thinktank working on sustainable transport solutions, said: “Elevated roads don’t work. Mumbai alone has spent close to Rs.5,000 crore, and there is still traffic. We’ve created an industry out of building flyovers. Cities have less and less money to spend on health and education because they’ve got locked into this high-cost investment pattern. This is not sustainable. An effective public transport system is the only long-term solution.


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