Imagine all that unused space underneath a massive flyover being converted into a public square with a bus stop, parking area, a children’s park, food stalls and other commercial establishments? That’s exactly what the Chennai Metro Rail Ltd (CMRL) is working on with regard to the multi-modal Kathipara urban square project in Chennai.
Located at Alandur, where various prominent city roads such as the Grand Southern Trunk Road, Inner Ring Road, Anna Salai and Mount – Poonamallee Road intersect, the Kathipara junction is probably one of the busiest and most important junctions in Chennai. Along with its geographical importance, the availability of various modes of public transport in the vicinity of the junction such as the suburban railway station in Guindy, the Alandur metro station and the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) buses encouraged the officials to come up with an idea such as the urban square project.
Genesis of the project
“It started as a routine survey way back in 2013 when phase 1 of Chennai metro was starting out,” says Daniel Robinson, a former member of the Chennai City Connect foundation, an organisation which was initially involved in the concept building stages of the Kathipara urban square project, before it was completely taken over by the CMRL.
With the metro starting out its operations, it also needed good last-mile connectivity and the MTC buses could play a major role, bringing in the commuters who would use the metro from Alandur station to reach their respective destinations.
Read more: Will CUMTA finally get going with a push from the World Bank partnership?
Speaking to Citizen Matters, Daniel says that one of the biggest challenges for the MTC buses, however, was to find a convenient point to make a turning at the Kathipara junction, since there was a lack of turning points. “Without this project, the buses have to climb the flyover, get down near Olympia tech park, go inside the telephone exchange and come back. That’s an additional 2.5 kilometres they’re taking. So one of the ideas was to figure out a way for the MTC buses to turn around,” says Daniel.
However, the urban square project is designed in such a way that the buses don’t have to take the flyover. They can pass underneath it and take a U-turn before the flyover ends.
The other perceived need was for parking space for buses. Given the number of buses that would be bringing and picking up commuters from the Kathipara junction, this would act as a crucial interchange spot, where commuters change from one mode of transport to another to get to their final destination.
“During 2013-14, we did an analysis, figured out the number of buses negotiating from different junctions, marked out critical points where the buses can make a turning, found the areas that can be converted into parking space and so on. However, there was no clarity regarding fund allocation,” adds Daniel.
Getting funds for a project benefitting the MTC in an area that was controlled by the Highways Department was slightly tricky. That was when the CMRL stepped in since they were also looking for parking space in Kathipara junction to bring in more commuters to the Alandur metro station. They depended largely on the patronage from MTC buses to increase metro rail ridership in the metro, and so decided to go fund the Kathipara urban square project.
As per various media reports, the project is being executed in an area of over 50,000 square metres (5.9 lakh sq ft) underneath the clover-leaf flyover. In a report by the Times of India in October this year, it was stated that the CMRL had floated a tender to give licencing rights for a total area of 1.45 lakh sq ft, including 42,557 sq ft retail space.
The ToI report also states that the urban square project, apart from the MTC bus stop will also consist of 56 shops which will be set up in an area of over 33,250 sq ft, a children’s park built in an area of 4,884 sq ft, a parking lot of 9,311 sq ft, a dining space in an area of 32,808 sq ft and so on.
Sivasubramaniam Jayaraman, Manager of Transport Systems, Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) feels that the people of every city need public spaces such as this. “Cities like Bengaluru and Mumbai are also utilising unused areas under flyovers for various recreational purposes like walking corridors and so on. And with Kathipara being a central point, this project could also act as a resting point for several commuters coming into the city from various points,” he adds.
However, Jayaraman also adds that a lot does depend on the design of the project and how it is made accessible to the people.
Will the urban square be accessible to all?
“Aesthetics cannot replace inclusivity. Inclusion is aesthetics now,” says TMN Deepak, founder of the December 3 movement, an NGO that has been working for the rights of People with Disabilities. Admitting the fact that aesthetics and beautification is important, Deepak says that it cannot be at the cost of inclusion.
Read more: How does MTC hope to improve disability access with its lorries-turned-buses?
He feels that this is the time to ask questions regarding how much of these spaces are going to be accessible to the people with disabilities and senior citizens. “When a person with disability or a senior citizen comes and gets down by a bus in Kathipara, how are they going to manoeuvre themselves to the spaces that are being constructed as part of the project? Are those also being taken into consideration in the project design” asks Deepak.
The other important question, according to Deepak, is regarding the affordability of the services and products that are being provided as part of the project — food, the parking space, the items on sale and on. “If it’s ensuring physical access and product access, I would definitely welcome this project.”
Much needed boost for MTC?
Meanwhile bus enthusiasts in the city are excited about the prospects of such a project. Santha Priya, founder of TNSTC Enthusiasts, a community of bus fans in Tamil Nadu, says that this is the right moment to come up with good infrastructure for MTC buses, commuters and staff.
“There are no big bus stations here for MTC. The Broadway bus stand is too old and it doesn’t have proper infrastructure for the commuters and bus staff. So I feel that a new bus shelter coming up at a busy junction like Kathipara is a welcome move.”
Read more: Why MTC is sinking and taking Chennai Metro with it
Stating that the TN government should try and utilise more unused spaces like this, Santha Priya also added that they are planning on suggesting the MTC to start new bus routes from Kathipara. “If they start point to point connectivity, this particular bus shelter can also become a bus terminus in the future.”
The construction of the Kathipara urban square project which began in 2018 is yet to be completed, however. According to officials who were associated with the project, various factors ranging from the delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, lack of support in the form of people groups or organisations that champion this project, etc are among the reasons that have slowed down the project. However, it was also stated that the finishing touches of the project are finally underway.