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How Chennai will change

The India of today is aspirational. It will continue to be so at least for the next 20 years. If we do not plan our cities correctly, growth will contra-intuitively lead to squalor and economic efficiency will be the first casualty. Therefore, our political system has to wake up right now.
To win: we must do elegant urban planning, have clearly laid policies, heterogeneous transportation architecture, leverage on smart city infrastructure, and engage closely with the citizens.

History records that economic development and per capita income accelerate when more than half of a nation’s population is urbanised. Such population agglomeration unleashes creativity and efficiency.
At the dawn of the millennium, India’s urban population stood at 28 per cent. By 2020, it is expected to hit 40 percent. Not only is India one of the fastest urbanising nations across the globe, Tamil Nadu, now surging past 48 per cent, is among its leading states. If historical evidence is reliable, this bodes well for accelerating economic development.
Like urbanisation and per capita income, there has been an equally strong correlation between per capita GDP and personal mobility. The post-war years of economic expansion in USA, Europe, and Japan were marked by a linear increase in personal mobility measured by vehicle ownership. 1980, India’s transport demand has grown by 800 per cent!
In short, India’s aspiration for a spurt in economic development over the next two decades will be accompanied by growing cities with increasing population density and at the same time, a marked increase in transport demand.
Without proper planning and without the adoption of the right technologies, these trends can lead to squalor, defeating hopes for better human development. Unplanned agglomeration often leads not only to slums that sap human dignity but also unchecked sprawl of city boundaries, resulting in inadequate transport infrastructure and erosion of economic efficiency. Mobility patterns become both car-centric and personal vehicle centric. Neither of this is good for the country. In the car-dependent US, the sprawling expanse of cities is estimated to erode 2.6 per cent of GDP. Globally, economic losses arising from the combination of air-quality degradation, road fatalities and traffic congestion are anywhere between 6 and 10 per cent of GDP. Heeding these dire warning signs, cities are rightly rushing to address remediation.


Noting that India can ill afford to travel down this road, Tamil Nadu has flagged a comprehensive set of actions to transform urban movement. As a port and industrial hub, the capital city of Chennai blessed. A focus on grooming educational institutions and promoting industrial development had allowed Chennai to host a concentration of auto and electronics companies. These factors have been responsible for its population doubling to over 11 million since 1995. This growth has unfortunately caused the city to witness unbridled sprawl.
This sprawl, accompanied by slow and inadequate investment in infrastructure, had caused modal share of transport to shift from public transit to personal vehicles. Chennai’s vehicle population has surged eight-fold since 1995. Worse, its vehicle density was the highest among large Indian cities: 2093 vehicles per km of road in 2015.
A comprehensive set of initiatives has been recently launched to prepare Chennai and Tamil Nadu for the future.

Urban planning is a critical first step

The formation of the Greater Chennai Corporation has been a much-needed step towards a more holistic and effective administration of the metro-city, now measuring 426 square kilometers. For the future, the mandate encompasses environmental actions, reclamation of water bodies and improving the resilience of the city to natural calamities. The Chennai Smart City project has identified 37 projects that will induct “smart technologies” to address safety, mobility and quality of life.

Design cities for people!

Cities around the world have realized that for much of the 20th century, we have been designing cities for cars instead of developing cities for people. As they attempt to correct the error in this millennium, they have discovered the vital role played by policies and regulations. Starting from planning for densification to stem sprawl, meaningfully tailoring strategies to improve liveability and mobility are being pursued. In Chennai too, transit-oriented development is now adopted, recognizing the symbiotic relationship between urban development and urban movement. The FSI index that governs how much vertical growth is allowed is being revised in city-centre areas and those near high-density metro rail corridors.

Creating a more heterogeneous transportation architecture

Shifting commuters from reliance on personal to public modes will happen only if there are suitable user-friendly public transit alternatives. Chennai’s evolution in the 1960s and 1970s was along preferred geographical corridors that were supported by a surface rail and highway corridors. These had been overwhelmed during the rapid expansion in the subsequent decades. Now plans are on for a more comprehensive revamping of the city’s mobility architecture. A grid of metro-rail high-capacity corridors is expected to overlap an expanded network of buses. Share-autos are a local phenomenon that offers a low-cost de-centralized, privately operated mode. When they are formally adopted within the transport framework and regularized with proper licensing, and aided by smart-phone apps, they can form a revolutionary capacity enhancement medium to Chennai. Likewise, auto-rickshaws, particularly when electrified, can add to public transit capacity as efficient, short-distance, low-carbon travel modes.

Focus on non-motorized models

Non-motorized modes will receive a significant amount of focus. The city plans bike lanes and bike-share operators. In commuter friendly cities, most journeys start and end with a short walk. Employing ‘complete streets’ templates that pay careful attention to enabling mobility for all sections of the population, Chennai’s sidewalks that had fallen into disrepair, are due for reconstruction so that, not only does the city become more pedestrian-friendly, public transit modes are more easily accessible.
Many cities manage parking capacity and pricing of parking spaces in city centre areas as a motivator for people to switch to public modes. In Chennai, the parking infrastructure is being transformed with regulated parking, multi-level garages and levy of rationalized fees. The host of new mobility options involving app-based ride-hailing and ride-sharing has allowed the private sector to be valuable complements to public transit. However, as most global cities have discovered, they need to be regulated to protect both customers and drivers.
In sum, Chennai’s plans call for embracing most of the wide variety of travel modes that should form the backbone of any city’s transit infrastructure.

Fostering modal connectivity and leveraging smart city infrastructure

The range of ways catalogued above will offer little value to a city unless they are effectively connected and allowed to operate as a linked transit system. The soon to be notified Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) Act will be an essential step towards better integration among the several transit authorities and travel modes. Early months of operation of the expensive Chennai Metro Rail had highlighted the critical importance of first-mile and last-mile connectivity as well as the importance of inter-modal transfers. Feeder services to link these modes are now planned. This should be aided by single journey ticketing across multiple modes. The Chennai Smart City initiatives leverage advances from a rapidly digitising society. A combination of sensors, data-connectivity and analytics will assist public transit users with schedules, fares and connections. At the same time, the deployment of a network of traffic monitoring video cameras will contribute to smoother traffic flows, ease congestion and aid enforcement of traffic rules. This has also unleashed a host of innovators and entrepreneurs to create travel-apps to serve a range of commuters across modes.

Engagement with the public

There is no standard fit-all template for cities. Each city is unique regarding geography, climate, economic and culture. Plans therefore need to be crafted, each city at a time, to uniquely serve its residents.
Much of what is presented above for Chennai remains work in progress. This is understandable for a growing city in an emerging economy. Yet, this is the right time, as these plans are being finalized and rolled out when considerable effort needs to be expended in engaging with the primary stakeholder namely the residents of the city. Chennai’s ambitious plans to remain one of India’s foremost cities for economic development and liveability will depend upon these plans being successful in implementation.

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