The Government of Karnataka proposes a long network of elevated traffic corridors, totalling close to 90 kilometres in length, to alleviate congestion in Bengaluru, and recently floated a tender for the first phase of the project. This tender, and subsequent ones to follow, are on the basis of a detailed feasibility report commissioned by Karnataka Road Development Corporation and prepared by a trio of private consultants engaged for the purpose.

The report only mentions the construction cost of the project, which is over Rs 19,000 crore. There have been press reports that claim once land acquisition and other costs are factored in, the total project cost could be close to Rs 30,000 crore or more. This is an enormous sum of money and one would assume that whoever proposes spending such a huge sum would exercise due diligence and enormous care to ensure that all aspects that warrant inclusion in the evaluation have been carefully considered. There is legitimate cause for concern when such proposals overlook many basic fundamental aspects.

The focus here is not to comment so much on the proposal for the elevated corridor project, but to reflect on the quality of urban governance and planning if a proposal to spend thousands of crores can be put forward without detailed evaluation of issues such as those listed below.

Vision for the city

Cities cannot be reduced to quantitative or technical problems to be solved. They are sites of creativity that form the cutting edge of an economy: even though less than 35% of India’s population is urban, over 60% of her gross domestic product comes from urban areas. Cities are dynamic cultural entities where the way people come together affects the vibrancy of the culture, economy and politics that take shape within the city.

Jane Jacobs, the eminent thinker on cities, had proposed that cities are truly vibrant when they have a buzz of pedestrians moving about at all times. Such cities are also far safer due to more “eyes on the street”. This will not happen by accident: it first requires a vision on the quality of life we want for the city, and then an urban design and planning strategy that works out the spatial form that will catalyse this quality of life. Clearly, a large network of megastructures of elevated corridors, casting huge shadows and spewing noise and pollution which will drive away certain land-uses, is not conducive to a vibrant pedestrian life. While some elevated transit structures may be unavoidable, they must always be evaluated and shaped by an overall urban vision. This proposal makes no such attempt.

Institutional framework for urban planning

The 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India came into effect in 1992 with the aim of granting recognition and autonomy to urban governance so that each municipality can function as a “vibrant democratic unit of self-government.” It stipulates that planning for a city the size of Bengaluru be undertaken only by a Metropolitan Planning Committee, which should draw at least two-thirds of its strength from elected members of the municipality – a provision that aims to subject urban planning to democratic oversight within the municipality.

Bengaluru has been poor in conforming to this constitutional requirement. It constituted the Metropolitan Planning Committee over 20 years after the amendment was enacted and bypassed the “self-government” intent by granting chairmanship of the Committee to the chief minister of the state. The amendment is silent on how the Metropolitan Planning Committee should develop the institutional capacity to perform urban planning, but it could be assumed that this capacity will be developed through building a qualified secretariat and an empanelled set of professional consultants.

Bengaluru has not pushed the Metropolitan Planning Committee in this direction, choosing to delegate all planning to the parastatal organisation that has conducted it so far: the Bangalore Development Authority. Delegation to a parastatal is another diversion from the intent of empowering municipal self-government that the spirit of the 74th Amendment calls for (and it is significant to note that the project report for the elevated corridor project has been commissioned by another parastatal, and not by the Bangalore Development Authority).

There is currently a public interest litigation being heard in the Karnataka High Court challenging this failure in conformance to the Constitution. In the course of this hearing, the court observed that the elevated corridor project has not been undertaken within the legally mandated institutional framework for urban planning and directed the government to cancel the tender floated for the first phase of construction of the project.

The project has also not followed the mandated procedure for public consultations on major development projects stipulated in the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act.

Typology of road networks

Road networks cannot be evaluated solely with linear logic. Roads belong to a category of what philosophers have called “polycentric problems”, which means that any problem cannot be isolated to one spot in the network. The metaphor that best explains this is the spider’s web: one may tweak the tension in one single strand of the web, but this action and its results cannot be confined to the point of intervention. A change in tension in any single strand results in a redistribution of tension in the entire web.

In India, we have tended to view interventions in road networks as “monocentric” problems, where we can isolate the problem and its solution to a single spot. For example, we observe congestion at a specific road junction and come up with the knee-jerk solution of a flyover at that junction to resolve congestion. We may find that after constructing that flyover we no longer see congestion at that junction and therefore believe our intervention to be successful. However, there may be another junction a few kilometres downstream of the traffic flow which, before the flyover was constructed, received a volume of x vehicles per minute and was able to handle this volume successfully. Once the upstream congestion is resolved, this junction now receives 3x vehicles per minute, and it becomes congested. The flyover did not eliminate congestion: it merely redistributed it.

The elevated corridor cannot be seen as an isolated project and must be viewed in terms of the overall architecture of the road network. The corridors have a series of entry and exit ramps, and the impact these ramps have on the underlying road structure is insufficiently evaluated. Ashish Verma, Associate Professor of Transportation Systems Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, predicts that these interfaces will cause fifty-three new spots of congestion in the city.

One has to look at the network as a whole, and particularly its typology and how one may alter it. Bengaluru has an overly radial pattern of roads, which overloads the city centre and causes a level of congestion that spreads outwards, with spill over impacts in peripheral areas. The strategy should be to relieve traffic flows from the restrictions of this radial emphasis through new concentric connections. This can be achieved through a mix of new roads (such as the proposed peripheral ring road) and modification and reclassification of existing roads. A case study that achieved this is Washington DC which in the late 1960s constructed a circumferential highway called the Capital Beltway. This was supplemented with area development plans that coordinated land-uses and secondary roads along this highway, resulting in a shift of commuting patterns so that the number of commuters moving concentrically far outnumbered those moving radially.

The elevated corridor project makes insufficient attempt to tackle the overall typology of Bengaluru’s road network, and to view it as a polycentric challenge.

Map of Elevated Corridor Project | Detailed Feasibility Report
Map of Elevated Corridor Project | Detailed Feasibility Report

Traffic and turbulence

It is falsely assumed that the only cause of traffic congestion is because of an overload of volume. This is not true in India, where a substantial degree of congestion results from turbulence in traffic flows caused by uneven road design standards. Imagine a water pipe whose width changed every few feet. Clearly water would not flow efficiently in such a pipe, and if one found a trickle upon opening the tap at the other end, this would be a result of turbulence in the system and may not be due to the average pipe diameter being too small for the desired flow rate.

We do not have consistent widths or standardised turn curvatures in the roads of Bengaluru (and most Indian cities), and the consequent turbulence is a significant cause of congestion. The relative role that turbulence and volume play in causing congestion is inadequately studied, but it should be noted that the project report justifies the proposal on elevated corridors by looking at congestion solely from the perspective of traffic volumes, making no attempt to comprehend the impact of turbulence in the system. Strategies to resolve turbulence require reclassification and modification of existing roads rather than adding new roads, and if turbulence is effectively dealt with, then the quantum of demand for new road space would come down drastically.

The fact that a reduction in turbulence can have an impact is proven by the TenderSure project implemented in the centre of Bengaluru. When the project was first proposed, doomsayers predicted that it would completely clog the city core, for traffic volumes were high and the proposal called for a reduction of traffic corridor widths in order to grant more space to pedestrians. But this never happened: despite reduced widths traffic continued to flow, for the project reduced turbulence through implementing systematic road standards.

Mixed-mode transport strategies

The Government of India has developed a National Urban Transport Policy that is published on the website of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. This document is offered as a baseline policy standard that can guide the development of transport strategies in every city. The document is acknowledged as a resource on the website of the Directorate of Urban Land Transport, Urban Development Department, Government of Karnataka.

One of the key objectives of the National Urban Transport Policy is to ensure that transport plans seek to serve the entire population and are not disproportionately oriented toward elite constituencies. A prime means of doing this is to aim at an allocation of road space on the basis of people rather than vehicles. This is not the current situation where buses carry far more daily passenger trips than private motorised vehicles, yet private vehicles occupy over 80% of the road space whereas buses occupy less than 5% (with this proportion falling further during peak hour traffic). Clearly a resolution of the transport problem can only be solved by a shift of prevailing modes from private to public transport. As the old adage goes, “A developed country is not one where everyone owns a car, but one where even the well-to-do use public transport.”

A strategy that seeks to primarily serve private vehicles is an elitist strategy as it serves only the upper economic segments of the population. The project report on elevated corridors continues this elitism by making all assessments of traffic volume using the measure of Passenger Car Units. All vehicles types are converted into Passenger Car Units equivalents, and the comparative effectiveness of different transport modes is lost in the analysis.

If the goal of the National Urban Transport Policy of allocating road space on the basis of people rather than vehicles is to be achieved, then all transport proposals should occur within the context of a comprehensive strategy that examines all modes of transport, with an emphasis on public transit. The project report acknowledges that all modes of transport should be coordinated with the elevated corridors, but only recognises this at a general level and goes into the detailed calculations and designs for the elevated corridors without similarly detailed assessment on other modes and the relative weights to be assigned to each mode of transport. If a comprehensive policy analysis of all modes of transport were done in advance, the entire proposal for the elevated corridors would probably need substantial modification.

Given that the detailed designs on elevated corridors were rushed into the tendering stage, it appears that by the time any comprehensive multi-mode policy was evolved, the construction of these elevated corridors would be locked into place as a fait accompli, along with the concomitant distortions in the relative weightage of public versus private transport modes.

Land-use and transit

Urban transport cannot be looked at in isolation for it bears a strong connection with land-use. For example, a single-use zoning policy where every parcel of land can only be used for a single designated purpose (whether residential or commercial) will entail greater average distances between work and home when compared to a mixed-use zoning policy where a neighbourhood contains a judicious mix of residential and commercial uses. This is not to recommend that we only follow a mixed-use policy, but to make the point that the land-use strategy adopted can have a significant impact on loads on the transit system.

This is why transport design should always form a part of comprehensive master planning. The current proposal on elevated corridors has been done as a separate exercise disconnected from the preparation of the comprehensive development plan. The government did announce that the proposal will be incorporated into the new master plan for Bengaluru, but this will wind up as mere juxtaposition of the two: a superficial attempt at post-facto validation, which is a very different scenario from designing the proposal in simultaneous consonance with the master plan. The “rubber stamp” intention is reflected in the decision to launch tenders for the first phase while the new master plan is yet to be finalised and released in the public domain.

Capacity limits

Clearly, a strategy of responding to traffic congestion by increasing road space is bound to hit a point of diminishing returns. Traffic volumes will only increase and the rate of yearly increase has gone up sharply in recent years. If we add road space for use of private vehicles, we incentivise the use of these vehicles and increase the rate at which traffic load is piled onto the road network. If our only strategic choice is to periodically increase road widths, we will either wind up with a city where roads take up so much space that building is no longer feasible or a dystopia where we are all condemned to live under the bleak shadow of elevated roads.

We have to move to a strategy that attempts a radical shift in the mix of modes of transport to avoid hitting these capacity limits. The elevated corridor project reflects a continuation of the old strategy of only increasing road space and makes no attempt to define where the point of diminishing returns may lie. In the 1960’s the German mathematician Dietrich Braess postulated in a theorem, subsequently named the Braess Paradox, that road systems can behave in funny ways. We tend to assume that increasing road space will lead to improved traffic flow, but it may paradoxically lead to an increase in average journey time.

The project report does not name the Braess Paradox, but obliquely recognises it by acknowledging that the elevated corridors may incentivise road usage. While it asserts that many parts of the proposed system will serve traffic volumes beyond 2037, it surprisingly acknowledges that certain segments of the system will touch peak capacity by the base year of 2023. What happens after that, and the impact on the rest of the system, does not receive much attention.

Environment impact

The proposal will have a substantive environmental impact. It will not only change the look and feel of a major portion of the city but could have other significant impacts given that over 3700 trees need to be cut or transplanted, and some segments of the elevated corridors intervene into the area of existing lakes and heritage structures. The project report recognises that given the corridors are structures and not just roads they do have to undergo a stipulated process of statutory environmental approvals. The State Environment Impact Assessment Authority has very recently granted approval to the terms of reference of the project: the first stage in the environmental approval process. The details of how environmental impact is measured and mitigated is not publicly known as yet.

Financial viability

The financial viability of the project rests on collecting tolls for usage of the elevated corridors. But implementing this is not easy. The standard design solution for doing this is to construct toll plazas at the entrance into the toll corridor: in this case at the base of the entry and exit ramps to the elevated corridors. But in this project these highways are being inserted into densely built metropolitan areas, space is not available for toll plazas, and the report acknowledges that constructing toll plazas is not an available option. The alternative strategy is glossed over in a single line that states “toll collection by ERP [electronic road pricing] is recommended.” This strategy is not explained, and its feasibility is not examined in the report.

If an unorthodox strategy that avoids toll plazas turns out to be difficult to implement, tolls cannot be collected, and the entire financial viability of the project is thrown into question. There have been some statements made by the government that tolls will not be charged, but this is not yet confirmed, and if true the ultimate financial cost and how it will be managed is yet to be publicly disclosed.

Highway shoulders and resilience in traffic flow

The design of highways in India follows guidelines established by the Indian Roads Congress. These standards call for every highway to have a shoulder: a buffer space between the outer edge of the outer traffic lane and the boundary of the highway. Shoulders are not used on a routine basis. They provide the space for vehicles that need to pull over in case they are disabled or are involved in a fender-bender accident and need to stop to sort things out. Once this buffer space is available, such vehicles can stop without significantly affecting smooth traffic flow. Shoulders are also meant to provide a space where emergency vehicles (tow trucks, ambulances, fire tenders) can move to reach where needed. Shoulders build resilience into the continuity of traffic flow.

The project report on elevated corridors seeks to follow Indian Roads Congress standards, but notes one significant exception: due to the constraints on space within a metropolitan area, shoulders have been largely omitted. The impact of this decision on the resilience of the system is not studied.

Many gaps

The points noted above have come from a quick review of the elevated corridor proposal. A detailed study by people with greater expertise in the subject may yield even more. The point to be noted is that substantive lacunae can be observed even in a quick reading, and this is possible for a project that seeks to spend thousands of crores, which will have a substantive impact on the look and feel of the city, where it was sought to release tenders for the first phase in a tremendous hurry.

This is a symbol of the poor institutional capacity we have built in India for urban planning and governance. This is even more important at this point in history, for we are in India’s urban century where for the first time in history we will have a majority urban population (projected to happen around the middle of this century). The future of the country depends on the depth and creativity with which we imagine the Indian city, and Bengaluru’s elevated corridor project is not an encouraging sign.

Prem Chandavarkar is an architect who also writes and lectures on architecture, urbanism, art, cultural studies, philosophy, politics and education. This article first appeared on his blog.