5 propositions for fixing India’s roads

5 propositions for fixing India’s roads

Despite a surge in the number of automobiles plying on city roads causing increasing congestion, transport planning in cities has been neither comprehensive nor visionary.  Rather than building integrated public transport systems, governments in India have resorted to temporary solutions, such as building flyovers and widening roads.  What we need are policies that integrate land use and transportation, maintain existing road infrastructure, and build and encourage the use of public and non-motorised transport. The following are five urgent policy propositions for fixing India’s roads.

  1. Decentralise transport planning to the city level.

Traffic congestion is a subject best handled by cities, but transport is a state subject in the Indian Constitution. As a result, decisions, policies, and initiatives pertaining to transport fall under the jurisdiction of state governments rather than cities. Unfortunately, state transport policies are generalised and are not attuned to local issues. This is problematic because transport policy and planning play a big role in the way cities shape and grow. Road transport, particularly public transportation, caters to a large user base and is often a city’s lifeline. But the increasing choice of vehicle options and the resulting congestion on roads has complicated the transport matrix. Considering the growing complexity, it is necessary to decentralise the decision making from the state to a local transport authority.

  1. Connect land use and transport planning.

The proposal for a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) in Chennai, first proposed in 2008, is still a draft bill. Unfortunately, the bill does not unify landuse and transportation, both of which are clearly closely interlinked. Indeed, these two components of the city are monitored by different agencies in all cities in the country, with the exception of Bangalore. This lack of coordination between the transport and development authorities has led to an unplanned sprawl in most cities, made worse by land speculation and encroachment. While the UMTA will help in holistically planning across existing road departments and newer transport investments like metros, monorails, and bus rapid transit systems, the UMTA must also reach out to the metropolitan development authority to bridge the gap between land development and transport.

  1. Make larger vehicles pay more in taxes.

In the past, a part of your property tax was used to build and maintain the roads in urban areas. Since 2000, road maintenance is funded by the Central Road Fund, which receives contributions from the central government’s sales taxes and excise duties, and state governments’ road taxes.

However, people have been flouting these taxes by buying vehicles in states with lower road taxes but using them in states with higher rates. To avoid this, the central government has proposed a uniform tax rate across the country. The centre is proposing that state governments to standardise the road tax at a floor rate of 6% of the showroom price of a vehicle before the value added tax.[1]

However, such a measure will have some strange implications. Since we currently have a progressive road tax bracket (where luxury vehicles are taxed at a higher rate) this proposition would mean a big relief for buyers of expensive vehicles. It will also mean that two-wheelers, which currently pay only 4% or lesser of their value as road tax will have to pay more to fill in for the revenue lost in selling luxurious vehicles. Since luxury vehicles tend to be the largest on the road, a uniform road tax would also mean that the government is implicitly encouraging the use of bigger cars over smaller and more fuel efficient ones, a foolhardy strategy!

  1. Create strict parking policies – and enforce these rules!

Considering the larger goals of the National Urban Transport policy (NUTP), the design of the roads and transport systems should be in the interest of the larger public and inclined towards reducing use of private vehicles. One outcome of the increased use of private vehicles are parking problems, as people tend to park on the sides of the road without facing any penalties. This adds pressure to the existing road, which often already functions at less than its carrying capacity due to encroachments and inappropriate street design. Most Development Control Regulations[2] (DCR), the rules that guide land development in most cities, have regulations for how many parking spaces are required for each residence, but roads have not accounted for visitors. Cities need to develop public parking plans, with limited numbers of legal parking spots. Enforcement of such a policy will encourage people to use public transport.

  1. Create incentives for the use of non motorised transport.

The count of walking trips averages around 32%in Chennai.[3] Inspite of this, the state of pedestrian infrastructure in Chennai is extremely poor and inadequate. Chennai has a little over one-tenth of its land use under roads, of which less than 2% have walk-able footpaths.[4] Contrary to the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) which asks cities to prioritize non-motorised transport, cities are not doing so. Calcutta has banned bicycles on many of its main roads and Chennai has banned the cycle rickshaw. But some states are doing better: the state of Punjab is promoting the use of cycle rickshaws in 22 towns, and there is even a public private partnership to make cycle rickshaws a widely used mode of transit.[5] This initiative is more in line with the NUTP policy, but not many states have extended their creativity to initiate inclusive and sustainable modes of transport systems.

Take the example of cycles. India has 90 bicycles for every 1,000 people compared to 149 in China. Yet, rather than improve cycle penetration in the country, the 2% excise duty that was levied in last year’s central government budget made cycles more expensive.[6] The government has made it easier to purchase a motorised vehicle through tax and loan schemes where people need only make a down payment of Rs.2,000. But to purchase a cycle, there are no such initiatives and the complete payment has to be made up front. Moreover, the lack of adequate and well-designed infrastructure places cyclists at a high risk in current traffic conditions, and further discourages the use of this mode of transportation. To truly encourage use of non-motorised transport the cities need to build a network of cycle tracks and usable pavements to make the city more inclusive.

These five propositions, if implemented, will move Indian cities a long way towards being more inclusive, more sustainable, less congested, and safer.

Written by Roshan Toshniwal, researcher, Transparent Chennai


[1]http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-06-06/india/39787659_1_road-tax-transport-development-council-big-cars
[2]DCR are regulations which all buildings need to abide by to get approval for construction.
[3]http://www.cmdachennai.gov.in/Volume1_English_PDF/Vol1_Chapter04_Transport.pdf
[4]Based on data collected by Transparent Chennai from the Corporation of Chennai in March 2011.
[5]http://ecocabs.org/
[6]http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/indian-cycles-need-policy-push/article4386293.ece

Interpreting the informality of public roads and footpaths

In a recent blog, Ranjeet Joseph had described the efforts the Walkability team is making to create awareness about an inclusive street design, which is gender sensitive and where pedestrians, street vendors and other users share the space equitably. Vendors are often perceived as encroachers of essential public space by the authorities. Corporation of Chennai officials argue that widening footpaths will encourage informal markets to thrive on them, reducing the space available for pedestrians. Intuitively, spaces that have high pedestrian traffic, such as transport hubs, places of worship and institutions, tend to attract street vendors. However, it would be inaccurate to say that vendors are the only ones who encroach footpaths. Shops adjoining footpaths often extend their displays to footpaths, private vehicles park on footpaths, all jostling against telephone pillar boxes, electricity transformers, hoardings, and autorickshaw stands. Storm water drains, which are meant to be covered and designed to double up as footpaths, are left uncovered for large stretches. Yet, street vendors, an important part of creating a shared public ethos, typically face the ire of disgruntled pedestrians and planning officials.

In the past, cities in India were planned to include pedestrians and vendors, and had thoroughfares and public squares which catered to the commercial and social needs of the people. The informal bazaars on the streets of the Fort area in Mumbai, old Hyderabad and the planned city of Jaipur remain examples of inclusive planning which is not practised in modern days. But Indian cities are not the only ones which are the battling grounds between pedestrians and vendors, and it is obvious that what we need is a combination of regulation and enforcement, along with an approach to planning which is inclusive of the different uses of streets.

Image 1: Mumbai’s pedestrianised shopping zones

Image 2: Pedestrian lanes abut shop fronts in Jaipur

The multi-faceted use of streets, a measure of vibrancy, is often misunderstood as chaos and will remain so unless authorities plan for the unplanned. Fortunately, the parliament recently approved the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2012, which aims to protect street vendors’ rights to livelihoods, mandates local authorities to restructure the road and pedestrian space to accommodate vendors. However, legislations need to be accompanied by planning, regulation and enforcement.

A lot has been reported about the deteriorating and diminishing footpaths, but the question of prioritising people over motor vehicles remains neglected. Thirteen percent of Chennai’s land is used for roads, not all of them have footpaths. But this space is still insufficient for the number of vehicles in the city, something that is not regulated. Footpaths are reduced in the course of widening roads and building flyovers, and existing fixtures such as utility boxes and hoardings occupy much of the remaining space, forcing pedestrians to walk on the carriageway thus putting their lives at risk and also slowing down traffic. As a result, pedestrians are the worst affected in road accidents, as reflected in the data collected and maintained by the Chennai City Traffic Police. Rather than increase the number and space for roads, the government needs to discourage people from buying more private vehicles and improve the public transport network and facilities.

The city also needs a stringent parking policy to control unauthorised street parking that results from the non-adherence of parking norms by builders. Buildings not only encroach road and footpath space, but also do not adequately cater to the need for parking within the premises. On-street parking takes away anywhere between 15 and 60 percent portion of the road width. In addition, the parking charges in the city are illogically low and cannot be equated to the rental value of the surrounding real estate. Why should the government subsidise crucial public space for parking?

The Corporation of Chennai should also designate space to approved autorickshaw unions and public utility infrastructure, something that would require the local authority to coordinate with other public agencies that install or regulate these services. Utility boxes, transformers and street lamps should be organised such that they are not obstacles for pedestrian movement. Local officials are not able to prevent encroachments by other public agencies either, or enforce legal orders such as the Supreme Court’s ban on shrines and statues on public roads. They should also designate space for pandhals or tents during festivals so that they do not become obstructions to pedestrian and vehicular traffic. If we could resolve these recurring problems, the restructuring of roads and maintenance of footpaths would occur efficiently and smoothly.

Instead, the inadequate footpath space places pedestrians in direct conflict with vendors. Vendors are an important part of the informal market economy of any city and pedestrians are also consumers, which is why vendors are there in the first place. Unfortunately, inadequate attention has been paid to incorporate informal economic activities into official planning processes, and vendors have been marginalised by existing policies, which have tended to be elitist and exclusive to certain kinds of uses. They lack adequate access to formal markets and jobs, and also find it difficult to obtain vending licenses and space in the city. Often the only idea proposed and implemented has been multi-storeyed retail spaces, which is at complete conflict with the needs and rationale of street vending.

We have been involved with the design of the footpath along 4th Avenue in Anna Nagar, where both authorities and residents questioned the widening of footpath because they believe that it would encourage vending and result in encroachment. While we were able to convince the contractor and officials from the Corporation about the need to widen the footpath as per design, it has been an uphill task to get local residents to participate in multi-stakeholder meetings. Vendors have as much a right to the city as pedestrians, and the symbiotic relation between pedestrians and street vendors needs to be brought to the fore when creating safe and inclusive public spaces.

Written by Roshan Toshniwal, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Water logged

In the blog “Chennai going down the drain” our interns Sneha and Sripad highlighted the standards and misuse of storm water drain. I would like to take this further by discussing the effectiveness of building such an infrastructure. The Corporation of Chennai had created the storm water drain (SWD) department to prevent water stagnation, which Chennai is prone to due to its flat terrain. Sometimes there are heavy rains during high tide which prevents water from draining into the sea, rendering SWD useless. Additionally, most roads in the city are badly maintained and have potholes, and the slope of the carriageway is not always appropriate for rain water to be drained.

Rain water has little impurity and, which if passed through primary filters, can be easily purified into drinking water. However, most of it is drained through the network of SWD and emptied into water bodies in the city. In many parts of the city sewage is emptied into SWD, which then carry this polluted water resulting in environmental degradation and loss of precious resource. While the government has made rain water harvesting mandatory for all the buildings, it has resisted the idea of creating sand filter pits on the roads for recharging the depleting ground water. Considering most of Chennai is on a flat terrain, the SWD network has a gradient that to allow them to drain into the sea or in existing water bodies, which prevents water from flowing to natural catchment areas.

One of the most interesting cases of draining rain water to improve the depleting ground water table is in Mylapore. All the rain water that falls in the PS Higher secondary ground gets sand filtered and is drained in the nearby Kapaleeshwar temple tank, which is generally kept clean and the access is restricted to festive occasions. However, this method of storing the surface run off in a static water body could lead to other problems like breeding of mosquitoes. Prof. Madhavi Ganesan from the Centre for Water Resources in Anna University cautioned about the use of such wet detention methods since they are precarious in nature. She stressed the need to leave temple tanks un-cemented since that would prevent percolation of water from high water table areas to low ones which is critical for maintaining a balance in the level of ground water in the vicinity.

Bio-retention and vegetated bioswale are other alternative storm water management practises which are cost-effective, maintenance-free and environment friendly. A citizen-led group SWARAN (Save Water and Recharge Aquifier Network) has been proposing alternatives to SWD department. They have successfully advocated for the Corporation to experiment with laying a harvesting pit in appropriate locations on a road in Besant Nagar. If this yields intended results the recharged water table will help in supplementing the water available to local communities. In the long run it could help the city be less dependent on the monsoons, which have been unreliable in recent years.

Written by Roshan Toshniwal, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Redesigning Anna Nagar: A process to create world class pedestrian space

In the recent past the Chennai Corporation had sanctioned tenders to redesign pavements of 71 bus route roads in the city based on the street manual devised by ITDP. The guidelines acclaimed in the manual are with reference to match world class road standards sensitised to the Indian conditions. Chennai City Connect and ITDP are to monitor the design of footpaths and are working alongside several teams of architects across the city to get a desirable solution. Transparent Chennai has volunteered to design the 2.2 km stretch of 4th Avenue road in Annanagar. You can read about the inception in Lalitha’s blog First Foot Forward.

The 4th Avenue road is 24m (80ft) wide and has traffic signals only at its terminal points. Because of the ongoing metro rail work on 2nd Avenue road, the 4th Avenue road has been serving as an alternative bus route road for the past two years. For ease of designing and understanding the road we divided the stretch into three parts, the detailed character of which is highlighted below.

Stretch 1: 3rd Avenue – 4th Avenue junction to 4th Avenue – 5th Avenue junction
This stretch is a 1.5 km long one-way and has no appropriate pedestrian crossing mechanisms. The land-use on most of the stretch is commercial with a combination of small and big establishments selling clothing, computers, watches, groceries, along with a thriving informal market. Most shops do not have adequate parking as per norms[1] with the result that most parts of the road are being used for parallel parking which has been metered recently. The challenge is to design the shoulder space keeping the growing spatial need and conflict between vendors and the traffic in mind, which will only increase once the metro gets functional. The city already has a living example of T-Nagar (Usman road) and to avoid the same problems the space needs to be given priority and be well-planned.

Stretch 2: 4th Avenue – 5th Avenue junction to 13th main road
Although this stretch is commercial in nature, it has a residential character to it. There are also offices, restaurants, hotels, a hospital, and in the recent past a few automobile service centres have found a home here. Small temples add an important social quotient to the character of the road, and including them in the road improvements proves to be the most challenging task. Some eateries have extended their services onto the adjacent pavements, encroaching on the limited pedestrian space, while parking and vending are prevalent practices around the larger establishments. This, along with the haphazardly growing trees and the randomly placed utility boxes leaves hardly any space for pedestrian movement. A part of this stretch has a 30 – 45 cm high pavement, making it difficult to use and which needs to be restructured. The contractor argued that since the height of the roads keeps increasing (as the tar is not scraped while relaying), the property access and the footpath height often appear to be equal or less than the height of the carriageway. This in turn demonstrates that the process of road laying needs to be addressed as well.

Stretch 3: 13th Main road – 100 ft road
This is a small stretch and is primarily residential with wide and shaded footpaths. This is also the most walkable stretch and will not need too much by way of alteration. The only possible intervention that may be required could be the addition of bollards as autos tend to park on the footpaths.

Basic standards adopted for design which alters based on site conditions
The carriage way on each side was consistently kept 6.5 m wide. The measurement is taken from the edge of the median to the edge of the sidewalk. For a world class pavement the space is essentially divided into three zones, namely the shop front, pedestrian zone and the furniture zone. The furniture zone is 2m wide and consists of parking, trees, vendors, utility, seating etc. The furniture zone will enable an obstruction free passage to pedestrians, the width of which will alter from 1.2- 1.8m depending on the foot traffic created by the adjacent land uses. The shop front is not really applicable in this context due to constraints in the width of the pavement.

A standard idea that came up during our meetings and discussions were to restrict the parking space to a maximum of 15m in a single stretch. Bollards are to be used on pavements bounding the access to the property to restrict motor vehicles from encroaching the pedestrian space and to ensure pedestrian safety. Appropriate traffic calmers are to be designed at every 4- road and T- junction crossings besides creating at-grade crossings every 100-150m for pedestrians. Niches for dustbins, storm water drains, etc. will also be designed in appropriate locations. The use of tactile tiles to help blind and disabled persons to use the pavement is pending with the Corporation. We intend to involve the residents in the design process soon. Based on the initial survey, we put together the requirements for a public toilet which has been proposed at an appropriate location. The design also proposes vending spaces and other attributes to make the road vibrant and interesting.

The implementation will begin soon and we would like your inputs, so please write to me at roshan.toshniwal@ifmr.ac.in


[1]Annexure XVI, page 107 of the Development regulation II Second Master plan.

Written by Roshan Toshniwal, researcher, Transparent Chennai

A preliminary review of policies towards housing for the urban poor in India

The increase in urban population has led to problems of land and housing shortage, congested transit, and severely stressed civic infrastructure. Under the JnNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission), 65 Indian cities had an opportunity to bridge this infrastructure gap and also to resolve some of the housing problems for the urban poor through the BSUP (Basic Services for the Urban Poor) component of the central government funded Mission.

During the 11th Five Year Plan, the Planning Commission estimated the housing requirement in the Indian cities to be around 26.53 million dwelling units by the end of 2012 of which 88% were required to cater to the economically weaker section (EWS) and another 11% to cater to the lower income group (LIG). To understand why this gap exists, one must look at the history of policies towards housing for the urban poor in the country. An examination of the history reveals that this gap in housing for the poor largely emerges from the failure of state-led programs to build housing, and the lack of private players that have come forward to fill the gap.

India being a socialist state at its founding, the government had taken on the responsibility for building much of the legal housing available for the poor. The government appropriated large pools of excess lands to be used for public purpose under the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act (ULCRA). In the past most state governments relied on the in-situ tenement construction method, but with the advent of the World Bank’s shelter projects, the emphasis moved to the sites and services approach, which involves selling plots of land to beneficiaries in integrated sites with basic facilities at a concessional rate.

Some of the state governments realised that slums were too difficult to manage by the urban local bodies and created parastatal bodies like housing and slum boards to look into issues concerning slums and the urban poor. These parastatal agencies have themselves had a mixed record of providing housing for the poor. The TNSCB (Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board) started by building tenements in-situ, but since the mid 1990s, has been clearing slums and shifting the people to resettlement ghettoes on the outskirts of the city causing a commotion in the lives of these underprivileged people. The SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) in Gujarat and Maharashtra has tried to use private sector partners in improving slum conditions, but these programs have been plagued with corruption. Delhi has an urban shelter improvement board under which there are separate programs for the urban poor. In 1986, Calcutta had a Basti Improvement Programme (BIP), in which tenure security was given to two third of the central city’s slums based on the John Turner model which was quite successful in the South American countries.[1]

In recent years, state governments have been moving away from acting as direct providers of housing for any class of people, including the poor, and have tried to rely more on incentivizing the private sector to provide housing. After the formation of the TNSCB, the Tamil Nadu Housing Board has stopped catering to the EWS and LIG category arguing that their land holdings are in prime locations in the city and could be used for projects that would generate more revenue than slum housing. Rajasthan has tried a mixed approach in their affordable housing policy, pushing both government and private sector builders to create more housing for the poor. They have directed government agencies to reserve at least 50% of all constructed houses for the EWS/LIG category, and, under the directives of development control regulation, have asked private developers to reserve 15% of their development for these categories. The state governments of Rajasthan, Kerala and Punjab have worked on luring the private participation in this sector through increasing FSI for affordable housing builders, fast tracking approvals, providing Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) to builders, allowing 10% of the land for commercial use, and even acquiring land at reasonable rates and then giving it to private players for construction.

Private participation in affordable housing has been most successful where community based organizations have been involved. In Ahmedabad, NGO’s like SEWA (Self employed Women Association) and SAATH have worked with private builders to build housing specifically for the EWS, LIG and lower MIG with houses ranging from Rs 3.5 lakh to Rs10 lakh. This model works only if there is a large volume of housing as the margins are lower and the emphasis is on timely completion of the project.

Despite these institutions and laws in place, the gap in housing for this segment continues to remain unfulfilled because the government failed to meet its own commitments for housing in any of these programs.

To deal with what is becoming a crisis situation, the government created another scheme called Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY). Under the RAY guidelines, all the urban local bodies are expected to map and take a census of all the slums in the city and create strategies to improve existing slums and prevent future ones. The RAY was progressive in many ways: it asked cities to map slums, whether or not they were recognized or notified. It is a necessary step towards giving slum dwellers a right to live in the city. If implemented correctly, the RAY could lead to a great deal of positive change in the city, but the program has so far been slow to take off. In the meantime, without access to adequate affordable housing, the poor in slum areas face lack of access to basic services, and are in constant danger of forced evictions.


[1]http://www.unoacademia.ch/webdav/site/developpement/shared/developpement/mdev/soutienauxcours0809/milbert_villes/Werlin%20Herbert_99.pdf

Written by Roshan Toshniwal