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Chennai Transport System: A Need for Citizen-Centric Reforms

May 17, 2010

“Why do car owners expect the city to make room for them to park their private property? Parking is not a legal right.”
“Chennai city’s car owners form a minority, yet they possess maximum political power, enough to influence Chennai’s transport plans.”
“The poor agitate, while the rich operate.”

With these and other provocative thoughts, Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota who visited Chennai recently, turned our prejudices towards auto owners on their heads!1 Penalosa during his talk at Anna University, Chennai in November 2009 that I happened to attend, discussed the possible transformation of Chennai’s transport system into one that is friendly to the city’s environment and its citizens. Chennai has recently seen an explosion of plans for transport projects focusing on high speed transport corridors, bridges and flyovers and a planned metro rail2. Penalosa argued that while infrastructure projects such as these sometimes contribute towards smooth flow of traffic in the short run, these alone cannot be the long term solution to traffic management within the city. More flyovers and roads make it easier to ride and harder to walk, and eventually lead to increased motor vehicle ownership, which again requires ever greater numbers of flyovers and roads. Clearly, with the limited space and capacity in the city, and the increasing pressures on the environment from cars, this vicious circle cannot be a sustainable solution.

Penalosa said that such projects do not make sense when you look at statistics. Chennai’s numbers prove this: in a group of 100 residents, 38 travel by bus, 4 by train, 30 walk, 14 travel by cycle, 7 travel by two-wheeler, and 5 by other modes. Only 2 out of a hundred travel by car! Building more flyovers to accommodate the small percentage of car users and building a metro rail which not many can afford are clear cut cases of social exclusion. The result of this over-emphasis on flyovers and highways and negligence with respect to walkers has had adverse implications – Forty two percent of road accidents in Chennai involve pedestrians and ten per cent of them involve cyclists. However, Penalosa argued that this bias towards automobiles is not just a problem of the government – we, the citizens, need to stop viewing automobile ownership as being closely linked to high social status.

Penalosa offered some interesting policy prescriptions to decrease private car use: Strengthen the public transport system and make the usage of cars more expensive through taxes on cars and parking, so that revenues from this can be used to subsidize public transport. But not just any kind of public transport: Penalosa advocated for the cheapest and easiest form of public transport — buses.

Penalosa does seem to have a valid point to make because I just came across a recent study by CSE which stated that it takes 60 cars to carry 90 people, but only one bus!3 Yet, I figured out through data sources that Chennai city has largely ignored its buses. There is acute overcrowding in buses during peak hours. Overcrowding is as high as one hundred and fifty per cent in certain routes as the supply is inadequate. As a result, crowds at the bus stops and spillover on the carriageways has become common. The waiting time at the bus stops has also increased. Meanwhile, private vehicle ownership has skyrocketed. The total number of motor vehicles in CMA has increased from 144,282 in 1984 to 1,674,185 in 2005. The vehicle population has grown at the rate of fifty per cent per annum during this period, owing largely to the growth in two wheelers and cars. The number of two-wheelers has grown even faster – from 87,000 in 1984 to 1,266,114 in 2005, at the rate of about sixty five per cent per annum. The number of motorcars has also increased significantly4.

Transport policy needs to be people-centric. A city with bicycle lanes, pedestrian friendly roads, and an excellent bus network is not only socially inclusive, but also one that is far more environmentally sustainable in the long run. Penalosa’s provocative lecture was a clear indication that the transport authorities need to re-align their policies and strategies in accordance with what the ‘majority’ of the citizens desire.

Contributed by – Somya Sethuraman, a Researcher for the Transparent Chennai team of the Centre for Development Finance, IFMR

3 Footfalls: Obstacle Course to Livable Cities, Right to Clean Air Campaign, 2009, Centre for Science and Environment