Why Chennai Metro needs to pay more attention to use of public space

CHENNAI METRO STATIONS

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Chennai Metro : Underground stations look posh, but attract few passengers because they cannot be accessed from residential areas easily. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

It’s been one year since Phase 1 of Chennai Metro became operational over the entire stretch. While ridership numbers over the last five years have been reasonably  high, with more than 6 crores using the city’s newest form of public transport (3.2 crore in 2019 alone), the Metro continues to be bogged down by some basic issues that have yet to be resolved. The original aim was to carry 7 lakh passengers per day, a target that the Metro will likely take years to hit and build capacity for.

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One of the primary challenges towards attaining higher ridership numbers will be to convert those who would otherwise use private transport or another form of public transport to switch to the Metro for their daily commute. One of the keys to this is going to be the effective use of public spaces in and around the Metro network, most importantly its stations. 

Designing stations to attract people

A transport hub of any kind is itself a public space. People come together here and then disperse as they head towards respective destinations. For planners of such spaces, therefore, it is important to recognise the significance of using this space itself to its maximum potential. For that, several complementary features are essential, which will ensure a hassle-free, pleasant experience for commuters.

The Chennai metro has struggled with much of this – lack of proper signage outside and inside stations, no proper footpaths for those who need to walk a fair distance to reach a station. Last mile connectivity issues have improved over the last year, but public spaces in and around the stations can tell us a lot about how the people in that locality use the metro, if they do at all.  

Alandur metro station is a good case in point. It is a critical interchange station on the southern end of the city. Its significance was always known, but the construction of  a footbridge enabling people to cross the road into the station has made a big difference to the footfalls here. Similarly, a very popular eatery has come up near Nanganallur Road station — a clear sign of its increasing usage.

The aim of any transport hub, like a metro station should be to make the wait time for a passenger less boring and stressful. This means effectively using the available space. There are multiple ways in which that can be done. The Bengaluru metro’s experiment with showcasing art in its stations or the creative redesign of the underground stations in Munich’s U-Bahn metro network are two examples of how metro systems in India and abroad make use of the built space to give passengers a pleasant transit experience while waiting.

The importance of ancillary projects 

In the financial year 2018-2019, the Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) reported a net loss of Rs 715 crores. Among the big metros in the country (others being Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kochi, Gurgaon, Delhi and Bangalore), Chennai recorded the highest net loss. 

In general, the metro is seen as a big step forward for intra-city transport, giving citizens an alternative, and hopefully a primary option for their transportation needs. According to the International Association of Public Transport (UTIP), in India alone, “metro systems are developing at a rapid pace with 400 km across 10 cities either operational or under construction and another 500 km across 40 cities at planning and conceptual stage.” But any large transport infrastructure project, particularly one of this scale, is bound to have speed bumps, especially in India with evergreen bureaucracy and a changing political landscape within states.

Building a large metro network in the city isn’t necessarily a sufficient condition for solving problems such as congested roads and pollution from vehicles. In the ten cities that have metro rail networks, Delhi being the largest, environmental problems persist and the metro is still not seen as a mode of transport that’s the most accessible. As this Economic Times column notes, citing Madhav Pai, India director at the World Resources Institute Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities –

A city should opt for a metro network only if it can offset the capital cost by monetising land around stations, as fares alone cannot defray costs. Otherwise public money is used to subsidise the middle class. That money can be better spent on buses, education and healthcare”.

For the long-term financial health of the Chennai Metro, the CMRL has decided to undertake some large-scale projects with the dual aim of attracting more people to use the metro and generate revenue. One of the big problems that this metro faces is lack of non-fare revenue. How can a large transport service generate money from sources other than ticket fares? That is a problem that a transportation network of this size needs to solve. 

If we look at other cities, the Bengaluru Metro, for its second phase, is exploring ways of using spaces in five planned depots for commercial purposes. The Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation (BMRCL) has leased out spaces at stations in Phase 1, which alone generated revenue of Rs. 44 crores in 2017-18.

Several stations in Chennai, especially the underground ones like Nandanam, AG DMS, have empty spaces jutting out at odd angles. As one walks along the yellow marking line which helps guide the visually challenged towards the train at Nandanam station, there suddenly appear several asymmetric corners. Behind an elevator, under a staircase. Surely these are not meant to be given out for retail? Who would want to rent them? And did these awkward shapes not add to the overall cost of construction of the underground section?

With regards to the Chennai Metro, there are two projects planned that are aimed at maximising use of public spaces located near the respective metro stations. The Central Square, a Rs. 400 crore project, includes a 20-storey building for shopping, bus bays and other passenger amenities including parking facilities for 800 cars. The other is a 20-storey structure above the depot at the soon-to-be-opened Wimco Nagar metro station, which can accommodate commercial or residential establishments.

The viability of such complementary projects will only be known once the extended line opens later this year, but this isn’t something which is new. Take the Hyderabad Metro for example; according to its Managing Director NVS Reddy, the metro in that city is part of facilitating urban rejuvenation,

Hyderabad Metro is slightly different from metros in other cities. Our intention is to turn metro stations into activity hubs and provide every possible service that a human being needs, which helps cut down unnecessary travel time.

For Chennai Metro to reach its projected ridership targets, there are a host of issues that need to be resolved. They have financial implications as well given the time and money being spent. With space being a premium and more attention being paid to how urbanisation has had a negative effect on the city’s environment, it’s imperative that the Metro uses public and built spaces as an asset – using it judicially, without waste and finding viable opportunities to generate revenue.

With inputs from Meenakshi Ramesh

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About Varun Sukumar 8 Articles
Varun Sukumar is a freelance writer in Chennai.

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