Metro projects booming, but how many will use them?


Street level view of the M.G. Road station on the Purple Line of the Namma Metro in Bangalore. Pic: Ramnath Bhat/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Metro rail projects are fast progressing in many Indian cities, and more are to come. They have been projected as the best solution to cities reeling under traffic jams. Currently eight cities have metro rails, covering a span of about 370 kms. The longest line of 217 kms is in Delhi, and next comes Bangalore at about 42 kms. In these and five other cities, 537 kms of additional metro lines are being constructed. Even more is in the planning stage.

This also means huge public spending, as metro projects require investments of thousands of crores. Yet, many studies have shown that the metro is built in a way that hinders public access to it. The swanky, modern stations are built in areas that are poorly planned, and lack utilities and pedestrian infrastructure. This is because land and transport development are unconnected in most cities. The Metro is also not integrated with other transport networks through bus stands and railway stations; feeder buses to stations are lacking too.

“In Indian cities, 40% people already use public transport, which means people will use it further if it’s efficient and supports last-mile connectivity”, says Satya Sai Kumar J, research scholar at Curtin University, Australia. While Indian cities have traditionally tried to solve traffic congestion by building bigger roads and more flyovers, it has never helped. Kumar says that metro can potentially solve the problem, as it can carry large numbers of people, on time.

Unlike Indian cities, many global cities have already adopted Transit Oriented Development (TOD), to encourage public transport. TOD, briefly, is a model in which land development of the city is centered around transport, instead of transport being expanded to cover new developments.

To implement TOD around metro, a certain area – usually 500-1000 m – around the stations/corridors should be marked as TOD zones. TOD zones should have:

  • Compact, dense, mixed land use development
  • Station located centrally, within a 10-minute walk
  • Good cycling/walking infrastructure, along with street lights, green spaces etc
  • Buildings with active facades, and no setbacks, facing streets; this is for public surveillance of streets, ensuring safety

The idea behind TOD is that people should be able to walk to the stations, take the metro, get down at their stations and then walk to their destination. The stations themselves can house facilities like shopping centres, to cut down the requirement of regular additional travel for people. Developments in TOD zones will have concessions like higher Floor Area Ratio, no building setbacks etc. In short, such development can potentially lead people to move away from their private vehicles or cabs and avail the metro instead.

In the case of Hong Kong, for example, 41% of the total population live within 500 m of a metro station. But in Indian cities, getting to stations, especially on foot, is difficult. Many take their private vehicles to the stations and park it there. Many others avoid the metro altogether as it is poorly integrated with other public transport and they cannot reach the station easily.

Studies too show that Indian metro rails hardly comply with TOD provisions, except having dense and mixed development around stations. Because of poor, unregulated land planning, the area around most stations already have dense development. There are also various types of land use and people from different income levels around many stations. But these station areas lack the utilities or facilities to attract more commuters to use the Metro and support them. Pedestrian/cycling infrastructure, access routes and safety are lacking in nearly all stations.

In many station areas, the poor get pushed out too, as land prices soar and high-end housing dominate. Rutul Joshi, Associate Professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, says, “Currently, people who can afford land near the stations move there, and then use multiple cars per household. But low income groups are the ones who need and use public transport the most.” Also, if a slum is merely relocated from a station area, it will only cause sprawl in the new area, as slum residents can no longer use the metro.

The scenario in our cities

Take the case of Delhi. It’s one of the few cities that have initiated TOD, and even has a TOD Policy approved in 2015. But a study co-authored by Joshi, published in 2017, found that most metro station areas in Delhi were not diverse or inclusive enough. Dense developments had come up post-metro, but these were unregulated and lacked supporting infrastructure.

Of the 19 station areas surveyed for the study, most did not have shaded footpaths or cycling tracks, and only 3-4 had active building facades. Footpaths were either not fully built, or were encroached. This is despite Delhi’s TOD policy prioritising pedestrian infrastructure over private parking lots. The policy also says that layout plans should include parking for buses, autos etc, but does not prescribe any standard for doing this.

Bengaluru: The study found that, in the case of Bengaluru too, station areas had developed densely, but by completely ignoring pedestrians. There were no proper footpaths, street lights or active building facades. Pedestrian network was good only near the major commercial areas.

The city’s Master Plan allows higher floor area ratio of 4 within 150 m of metro stations to allow for more density, but the study points out problems here. A floor area ratio of 4 translates to building height of at least five floors, but plots around most stations are too small to have tall structures.

For example, 92% plots around Indiranagar metro station are smaller than 1000 sq m, and mostly have independent houses. Increasing FAR within a small area will also double the burden on existing infrastructure there, the study says.

Chennai: The city suffers similar issues, as noted by a study by the non-profit ITDP (Institute for Transportation and Development Policy). In their study of the area around Koyambedu metro station, they found street design and walking infrastructure to be poor. The area had bigger roads, but not smaller street networks that could connect pedestrians to stations. This is despite Chennai Metro’s estimation that 40% of its commuters would reach the station on foot, and only 1% by car.

What’s the way forward?

Despite these issues, India is slowly opening up to the concept of TOD. This year, the central government released a National TOD Policy, as a guideline for states. As per the policy, TOD should be implemented in an influence zone of 500-800 m around mass rapid transit stations/corridors. These zones should be notified in the city master plan and local area plans, in a transparent manner. Multiple transport modes should be integrated in these zones too.

The Metro Rail Policy, 2017 also mandates TOD for metro projects from now; state governments have to include a chapter on TOD in their metro proposals. Joshi says that Ahmedabad has taken a leap by preparing their new city master plan itself based on TOD, unlike Delhi which only has the policy on paper. The Ahmedabad master plan is awaiting the approval of the Gujarat government.

Other cities are taking smaller steps, but Kumar says that merely increasing floor area ratio or changing land use around metro stations is not enough. “There should be planning specific to each station, depending on existing developments. For example, if the plots close to the station are too small, the government can incentivise plot amalgamation. Separate Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) should be set up to implement TOD,” he says.

Both Kumar and Joshi are of the opinion that a major problem lies in the metro being planned in isolation, without community participation or coordination with other government agencies. “Metro rail is like a white elephant that no one can touch. SPVs plan and implement the projects, and no one can question them. Only state and central governments have a say, not cities,” says Joshi.

Joshi says that a short term transport solution would be to spend more on buses, and to integrate these buses with the metro rail network. “At least one-fourth of the amount spent on metro rail projects can be used to improve city bus transport – quality, last-mile connectivity, and feeder buses for existing metro stations. There should also be an integrated ticketing system for buses and metro, and they should be marketed as a single transport system for the city.”

Joshi says that integration is especially important in cities like Bangalore that have a circular structure, and thus often require multiple transport modes for one trip. “Also, other cities do not have as much funds as Delhi  to build a huge metro network,” he says.

TOD should be implemented not just to increase metro ridership, but also for sustainable development of cities. It will reduce private vehicles, and thus traffic congestion and pollution. Kumar points out that builders currently acquire land around stations quickly and build huge structures, increasing chances of flooding. TOD is essential to tackle this issue too.

About Navya P K 13 Articles

Navya P K is a former senior staff journalist at Citizen Matters, and a freelance journalist based in Kerala.

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