It was just in January that a Government Order was issued for the construction of three new flyovers for the city at a cost of Rs. 335 crores. Now, Chennai’s new mayor Ms. Priya Rajan has signalled the administration’s intent to focus on a new batch of flyover projects as part of a roster of key civic solutions.
Flyovers are touted to be essential infrastructure to decongest traffic snarls, but whether the benefits are commensurate with the steep price tags is a matter of some debate.
Flyovers did not add much extra capacity
A 2016 piece in The Hindu states that Chennai has spent around Rs. 1,144 crores in erecting new flyovers. The sweeping project of the late 1990s saw the installation of nine new flyovers, resulting in the addition of an underwhelming 12.4 km of extra road capacity over the last decade – a period in which Chennai saw 60 lakh new vehicles descend upon its roads.
Curiously, the statistics may not be mere happenstance; senior retired officials have been reported to point out that the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers had a significant part to play in formulating the Traffic Action Plan of the 1990s.
The city roads are choked with traffic snarls that grow more severe every passing year. It is not unreasonable to wonder about the virtue of expensive flyovers that bring short-term benefits, ultimately enjoyed only by a small percentage of road users.
True cost of flyovers
In a quote to the media, Madhav Pai, the director of an organisation that works on sustainable transport solutions had this to say about the structures – “Elevated roads don’t work. Mumbai alone has spent close to Rs. 5,000 crore and there is still traffic. We’ve created an industry out of building flyovers. Cities have less and less money to spend on health and education because they’ve got locked into this high-cost investment pattern. This is not sustainable.”
The city doesn’t just bear an economic cost when it comes to flyovers, there are environmental and civic costs as well. Flyovers seem to set in motion a vicious cycle of congestion – by making it easier for vehicles to move through the roads, they arguably encourage new ownership, paving the way for a boom in new vehicles.
This is terrible for Chennai’s air pollution index, which, according to the Centre for Science and Environment, is reported to have the dubious record of being the second-worst vehicle polluter in the country after Delhi. Apart from having an impact on emission levels, new flyovers tend to rip the city as they come up, dislodging homes and public recreational centres.
Adding to traffic woes
Sometimes, they even make the traffic problem worse. K.P. Subramanian, former professor, Anna University is quoted in a news report thus – “In most cases, only particular intersections are upgraded, while the preceding ones or the ones that follow are not. Consequently, acute congestion is caused at landing points of ramps resulting in serpentine queues. The flyover near IIT is a classic example.”
Such infrastructure projects don’t always meet the approval of the public, either. A few years back, residents turned down a proposal by the Corporation to build a flyover at Mandaveli junction, feeling that the area would be served better by tackling encroachments and illegal parking.
Need to explore alternatives
It is rather baffling that flyovers are being prioritised at a time when growing environmental and climate concerns have made it clear that public transport must take precedence over private ones. A traffic management solution cannot exist in a silo that pays little heed to the city’s myriad eco-friendly initiatives such as electric buses, encouragement of Metro patronage and improvement of green cover.
Chennai needs a long-term fix that serves more than just the relatively small proportion of road users that are private vehicle owners. In fact, according to a piece authored by Kashmira Dubash of the ITDP (Institute for Transportation and Development Policy), the city of Ranchi put a stop to the construction of two flyovers in 2016, opting instead to make it easier for its citizens to cycle, walk and use public transport.
The article goes on to say that according to international standards, cities like Chennai require over 300km of mass rapid transit. Whether that is actualized through bus systems or the metro, it certainly seems to be a goal more deserving of the exchequer’s money than flyovers.
One hopes that the administration will subject such proposals to a fair evaluation by today’s standards, taking into account cost, impact and alternative solutions.
[This story was first published on Madras Musings. It has been republished with permission. The original article can be found here.]