Since the introduction of the Metro, Chennai’s transportation landscape has undergone quite a change. For those who use private transportation and MTC buses, traffic congestion is a serious issue. The reach or coverage of forms of public transportation such as suburban trains and metro are not extensive enough. Hence, for many, using a combination of private and public transport or more than one form of public transport is part of a daily routine. In a city that’s home to people of different socio-economic backgrounds, this mix is an opportunity as well as an incentive for smart city goals of making transportation efficient.
Let’s take a very general lay of the land for Chennai as it stands today. Its major transport hubs with external connections are an airport with international and domestic connections, one of the largest bus terminuses in the continent and one large railway station. Within the city, the most widely used form of transportation are buses operated by the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC). It’s the lifeline for lakhs of people on a daily basis. The city also has the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS), a 20-km long train network that runs within city limits.
In January 2016, Chennai became one of the 20 cities to be selected for the much-hyped urban renewal and retrofitting programme of the central Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), the Smart Cities Mission. One of the key components of the Chennai Smart City plan was smart transportation and mobility.
On paper, having an efficient and economical transport network in place is as simple as getting people from A to B to C and back to A in a seamless, hassle-free way. Significantly though, as V Sumantran, Chairman, Celeris Technologies, wrote in a 2018 column for Business Line on Chennai’s prospects for mobility, “Too many cities have seen impressive theoretical proposals wither in application. Chennai’s “on-paper” plans deserve to be thoroughly analysed, meticulously planned and diligently executed.”
Smart mobility integration
For people to be persuaded to use more public transport, could Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS), that is the integration of different forms of transport, be the right step? For a smart city, this seems obvious.
Think of a hypothetical situation where the barrier of entry for such a system is low, which means that any citizen can use any form of public transport and can seamlessly switch between systems as required. The Metro has done this to a certain extent. It has presented a picture of what smart mobility can look like. A person going to the airport from a densely populated area like Anna Nagar or Kilpauk can use the metro, and significantly reduce travel time in comparison to private transport. However, someone working along the IT corridor in the southern part of the city, but who lives in Nungambakkam, may need to use two or more modes of transportation to reach his destination as the nearest station might not be a walkable distance from either the point of origin or the final destination.
Also, for smart mobility to work in a city like Chennai, it needs to be a two-way street. Citizens and policymakers need to ensure that discussion and debate bring out the best ideas. For citizens, there must be an openness to adopting new modes of transport. However, precedent here doesn’t paint a promising picture. The Chennai Metro is about 5 years old and isn’t anywhere near its peak passenger capacity. Problems of last-mile connectivity and complaints of high fares have hindered the Metro from attracting a higher number of passengers.
Here’s where the other side comes in – policymakers and planners need to incentivise and educate citizens on the benefits of an integrated mobility system. The inherent problem for Chennai is that new transport systems are being built around and over existing ones. That presents a problem of integration. A force-fit strategy can be disastrous in the same way that planning in silos can be. The MRTS and Chennai Metro have been at odds on how the two systems can be integrated. A proposed takeover of the MRTS by CMRL is at a standstill. Apart from the Egmore and Central metro stations (both have suburban stations next to them) and the Alandur metro line, the vast majority of the routes aren’t coordinated. This is where integration plays a big role but the Metro isn’t even a part of the smart city plan.
As mentioned earlier, for Chennai, the government bus system is the most widely used form of public transport; however, this system is overburdened. The fleet of buses is aging and as a result, the Metropolitan Transport Corporation launched a new fleet of buses to replace the old ones. The routes for these are important – these buses go where suburban train services and the Metro do not: the OMR/IT corridor. The numbers in terms of revenue and footfall are promising – Rs 11,500-Rs 12,000 in revenue through ticket sales and more than 900 average passengers daily.
One of the challenges Chennai faces when it comes to transportation is traffic congestion. According to public data on vehicular congestion in some of India’s biggest cities, Chennai has a density of 297 cars per kilometre of road length. On a sunny day, various points of congestion are commonplace, but if there’s sustained rainfall, traffic snarls get even worse. This speaks more about the state of road infrastructure than anything else. According to Mohit Kochhar of KPIT Technologies, “India loses $21.3 billion annually due to traffic congestion and additional fuel consumption because of poor road conditions.”
Building more highways and roads can be one way to reduce traffic. However, this is essentially a solution that increases capacity which has been known to lead only to more traffic. It’s a case of induced demand as roadways are free and people use it the most. Brown University economist, Matthew Turner, speaking on traffic data for Los Angeles made a general observation that “adding road capacity spurs people to drive more miles, either by taking more trips by car or taking longer trips than they otherwise would have.” Hence this solution may not be the best for Chennai.
One of the projects under the smart city programme for Chennai talks of monitoring traffic and ensuring that violations are caught and dealt with. The Red Light Violation Detection (RLVD) system involves installing cameras to detect number plates. Recently, with the help of this system, at least 90,000 traffic violations have been recorded in Anna Nagar. This form of traffic regulation has many benefits – it’s quick and done digitally and ensures that drivers are kept aware of the system in place. While the main problem of traffic management is volume, perhaps such a system can help in regulation and bring some semblance of order.
According to projections from the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), with an increase in population, an estimated 65% of all transportation trips will be through public transport in 2026. That places a huge burden on the public transport system of any city. In general, to accommodate such an increase in the volume of people, infrastructure will need to be in place.
For Chennai, transport infrastructure remains a big challenge. For it to be considered a smart city with regard to transportation, it has to be looked at from a citizen’s perspective — keeping in mind their daily routine and the environment in which they live and work. People from different areas of the city live and work differently and the socio-economic make-up of the particular area should determine the best approach. Right from the phase of conceptualisation, a ‘people first’ approach works best.
Take the example of the Metro mentioned earlier and its problems with regard to patronage. Putting the high fares argument aside, incentivising people to use it should include good surrounding ancillary infrastructure: footpaths, underground subways, lighting etc. For those who need to use more than one form of transportation, the transition should be seamless and hassle free. Something as simple as multiple entrances to a station to avoid crossing busy roads ensures that transitioning to other forms of transportation is smooth and safe. The metro at the Central railway station is the best example for having points of exit for those who need to transition to the suburban trains or to the main station itself.
A full blown multi modal transport model is a challenge as various existing public transport systems operate on different scales serving different sections of the population. It remains to be seen how the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) Act will pan out, as it took eight years for it to be notified in January this year. But with or without that, as with any sprawling metropolis, Chennai has an array of opportunities to become a smart city, at least as far as mobility and transportation are concerned. The question is, can we harness those opportunities effectively?