The Delhi government’s plan to construct a web of elevated roads – with two lanes for private vehicles that will have to pay a toll, and one lane for buses that will be exempt from the toll – needs to be rethought, because more roads will mean more traffic and hence more congestion.

Examples from the world over show that constructing highways or freeways and flyovers does not solve congestion along select routes and that the construction of high-capacity, limited-access roads as a means of managing automobile congestion in urban areas is doomed to failure. In fact, academic research and practical experience have demonstrated that an increase in highway capacity leads to an increase in vehicle travel as it attracts latent demand as well as reduces public transit and non-motorised use due to compromised access for these modes of transport. This reduces, or in some cases even negates, the congestion-fighting benefits of the infrastructure projects. Therefore, any benefit that might result by way of increased average speeds for motor vehicles is quickly neutralised over a few years, leading to growing motor vehicle activity, increased congestion and greater pollution.

A radical new idea

Take the example of the Cheonggyecheon Freeway in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. In the 1950s, Cheonggyecheon River, bordered by a slum and used as a dumping ground, became an eyesore of polluted water. The local authorities decided to cover up the river and build a four-lane elevated freeway on it. What followed four decades after the construction was contrary to what had been envisioned. It led to the deterioration of the Cheonggyecheon area with increased traffic, noise and air pollution.

Today, the highway is gone, and the river has been rehabilitated. The resulting green space is a source of urban pride, and motor vehicle travel times have actually improved in the neighbourhood of the old highway.

Former Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s election agenda in 2001 was pulling down the flyover and restoring the river. He went on to become the President in 2008. It was first considered a “crazy idea” to tear down what was considered a vital traffic artery that carried 1.68 lakh cars per day. But a traffic model was developed to study the possible effects of demolishing the freeway, and the results of the model was surprisingly encouraging, even predicting better travel times in downtown Seoul.

In March, 2003, Seoul began constructing its first Bus Rapid Transit line as a complement to the city’s existing underground metro system, which serves the route of the freeway and was designed to accommodate 1.20 lakh passengers per day. The 14.5 km Bus Rapid Transit corridor was completed in June, 2003, and the freeway was closed at the same time. In addition, Seoul announced that it would improve bus services in 18 other corridors, with exclusive bus lanes on nine of those corridors. The project had the complete backing of the citizens of the city, who got in return for a blighted freeway, an incredible public amenity.

Flyover removal a global agenda?

Several cities such as San Francisco, Boston, Milwaukee, Trenton, Portland and Chattanooga in the United States, and Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, had also built elevated highways between 1950 and 1980 only to pull them down later to make more space for pedestrians. Melbourne and Auckland too have removed some of their flyovers.

Over 30 years ago, Portland in North America decided to raze the Harbour Drive freeway and replace it with a 37-acre park, making it the first city in the US to initiate the idea of freeway demolition. It is estimated that over 108 flyover or elevated projects have been demolished worldwide.

Way forward for Delhi?

Closer home, the access controlled 28-km Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway with two toll plazas (one 32-lane one at Sirhaul on the Delhi-Haryana border, which is now gone, and one 23-lane toll plaza further down at Kherki Daula) was built to address the explosion of traffic on the route. But a few years down the line, none of the frustrated commuters on that route feel it has helped their commute in any way. Travel time is just the same, or has even increased since the past. Even the demolition of the Sirahul toll plaza last year hasn’t brought much relief. In 2008, when the expressway was commissioned, roughly one lakh vehicles crossed the toll plaza. In just four years the number doubled to two lakh vehicles. The expressway just induced more traffic in its wake.

With the number of personal vehicles on the roads increasing, governments are pursuing policies whose net effect is still to promote the use of cars and build infrastructure to facilitate them. Decision makers should realise that added infrastructure only begets more traffic, and more pollution.

A paradigm shift is required in terms of providing for, and incentivising public transport and non-motorised transport so that users are drawn to sustainable modes of transport instead of being forced to. Dario Hidalgo, a global expert in sustainable transport, said: “Flyovers take congestion to the next level”. Hence, the solution to traffic congestion is not road widening or more flyovers, but better public transport, and incentives for people to use public transport, or even cycle and walk to destinations that aren’t that far off.

Sarika Panda Bhatt is project manager at WRI-India.