Friday, October 22, 2010

72 minutes to get to work, 4 hours in a bus! How can some order be brought to Chennai's chaotic traffic?

We’ve heard of Singara Chennai before… Nothing much has happened since. Nowadays, it’s all about Vision 2020 and Chennai being made a sustainable city. At a programme (Connect 2010) organised in the city by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) recently, there was a session devoted to physical infrastructure and paving the way for sustainable cities. As is the case with sessions, seminars, workshops and programmes and what have you, a lot is said but there is very little action on the ground. Now, a body like the CII can get people who matter to meet and say what they have to, but it is for government to seek advice form such bodies and take steps required.

Well, one of the key factors that determine a sustainable city is the amount of time taken by a person to commute to work. It is estimated that Chennai residents take 72 minutes on average daily to travel to places of work (one-way). Speaking at the session, K Venugopal, Joint Editor, The Hindu Business Line, said that when companies plan work places, aspects such as proximity to sources of raw material, water bodies, airports and ports are considered but often no consideration is given to how far away an employee stays. Even if there are company buses, should somebody commute 40 km each way to earn a livelihood, he wondered. He obviously had a pertinent point.

Venugopal added that the city has grown without a grid to guide it. Most roads cannot take the traffic, and infrastructure such as water supply and sewerage have proved to be inadequate – they don’t reach all the communities that the city encompasses.

Coming to road transport, many will readily agree that driving on Chennai roads is getting to be a nightmare. While vehicles numbers are increasing every day, road surface remains the same – 45% of roads are less than 15 metres wide; 15% are 20-30 metres wide. Sustainability is also about using more of public transport. But from what one of the speakers said, its share seems to have reduced dramatically in the past 20 years – by 40% to 60%. There is no doubt that the state government has attempted to find solutions by constructing flyovers and encouraging the use of public transport, but, like Sunil Paliwal, Managing Director, TIDCO, said at the session, there must be implementation of stringent measures to restrict the movement of private vehicles, such as permission to own a second car only if there is garage space. He cited the examples of Noida and Delhi where many people use the Metro Rail.

Referring to the regular traffic bottlenecks in Chennai – on Anna Salai, Poonamallee High Road and the IT Corridor – Paliwal said there is a constraint in developing infrastructure, lack of good consultants and enforcement of planning regulations is lacking. Even liberal rules are not being enforced, he said, adding that citizens must be prepared to pay the toll if they expect better roads. No doubt about that.

According to V Somasundaram, Chief General Manager, Chennai Metro Rail Ltd, two-wheelers, which have grown in numbers by 76%, is a major cause for traffic congestion. The number of passenger cars has grown 19%. Indeed, private vehicles account for 71% of passenger traffic in Chennai; buses 26% and suburban trains only 3% (statistics provided by him). The average speed of buses in Chennai has reduced to 17 km an hour and Somasundaram says the speed will further reduce to 12 km an hour in the coming five years, increasing journey time considerably.

I could very easily relate to what Venugopal and Somasundram said. My neighbour, an accountant, works at Mahindra World City. He leaves home at around 7am to catch the company bus at Ashok Pillar. He says the morning trip takes an hour and a half. By 5.30pm, he is ready to board the bus at Mahindra World City. The return journey takes two-and-a-half hours! Reason: traffic jams. So, by the time he ambles into our colony, he looks tired and haggard, his shoulders are drooping, the smile has disappeared and his thought must be on a quick wash, dinner and hitting the bed. For hours of journey time every day!

Now, I can’t think of any way his life could be made easier. He might do well to change his job. That is, if he gets another. But then, he’ll have to contend with city traffic. At least, he may have two more hours to spend with his family.

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