Flooring the Metro area

While more footpaths need to be developed around Metro stations, the real estate madness needs to be reduced. A higher Floor Area Ratio of 4.0 is being proposed for properties within 150 meters of all stations.

The first trains on the Metro are about to run in the next six to nine months, so this is a good time to ensure that a few other steps are taken to make the new infrastructure more effective. This is particularly because the world over, Metro systems are usually not financially viable, and this has to be overcome by some tie-in arrangement in the real estate market, through capital grants from government and through other control measures that benefit the transit system.

Bangalore Metro is no different. Over the course of a decade and more, the state has been willing to confer enormous subsidies on rail (expensive) infrastructure, but not willing to support bus systems with even a tenth of the money. This is unfortunate – BMTC buses deliver much greater benefits at much lower costs than any other alternative, and we should focus on expanding this service and making it world-class.

Insisting that BMTC should remain profitable makes no sense; it will undermine the overall effectiveness of a transportation plan that could be fantastic if only we placed bus transport on the same pedestal as the trains. Thus far, only Gujarat is doing this.

Metro has been proactive in engaging with BMTC to design feeder systems that would make it easier for people to access Metro stations, and this is certainly a good development. Integrated ticketing between the two organisations is also on the cards which will also be a boon to passengers.

Things that can be improved

Now for the things that can be improved. Pedestrian mobility everywhere in the city is pathetic – we are 15 years behind even other Asian capitals on this score. Metro should take over the task of improving the footpaths leading up to the train stations. Currently, the focus is limited to a short stretch immediately outside the stations, but this is not enough.

‘Metro-zones’ of 500 meter radius around stations should be defined, with minimum sidewalk width of 3 meters everywhere. When people can get to the station on foot safely and comfortably, ridership is bound to grow; Metro would happily bear the cost, I’m sure.

While the footpath zone needs to be increased, the real estate madness needs to be reduced. With a view to promoting higher densities near the stations, a higher Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 4.0 is being proposed for all properties within 150 meters of the station boundaries. This is well-meaning but the data does not support the reasoning.

Of course we want higher densities near the station. But we also don’t want these to be in cramped quarters that are unattractive to businesses. The goal is not merely to build a lot, but to build a lot of attractive working spaces. There are good reasons to believe that this will not happen through the additional FAR.

Actual FAR

I looked at the actual FAR used by the ten largest commercial properties in the city, all of them giant buildings with lots of office space. Not even one of them exceeded an FAR of 2.75. Most were between 2 and 2.4.

Keep in mind that the permissible limit of FAR in the city is 3.25 according to Revised Master Plan (RMP) 2015, in most places, so there is plenty of unused FAR even within the existing provisions in large buildings. Any massive towers that come up near the Metro stations are also likely to be similar, and won’t use anything more than an FAR of 3, even in the extreme cases.

So, who is likely to use an FAR of 4? Only the small property owners who have no business putting up large structures in their small properties in the first place. So, what the ‘densification’ policy would do is create a lot of construction near the stations, but much of this would be cramped for parking and other amenities. In turn, this might create the risk of the areas themselves becoming unattractive, making even some of the larger properties less valuable as office spaces.

BBMP does not seem to understand that large buildings don’t need high FAR. Only small buildings need high FAR, and they will never contribute meaningfully to densification because they are small. If you try to densify them you’ll end up making even the nearby large buildings that much less attractive.

Densification-not a viable option

Unfortunately, BBMP is not looking at this risk seriously enough. Officials in the corporation are instead simply mouthing a logic they don’t even understand, arguing that densification is necessary. Moreover, whereas an original government circular suggested that the higher FAR should only be given after the stations are constructed, this was later modified to allow higher FARs now itself. If this policy is not arrested, Phase I of the Metro will be doomed financially.

This brings me to the last point. In most metropolitan cities, there is a tendency to think that the rapid connectivity to certain locations provided by the system will offset any advantages that other locations may have. This is another of those ‘facts’ that is true only in a larger sense, and not necessarily valid in particular instances.

When Metro itself is building multiple lines and dozens of stations, each location must compete with others on the Metro line itself for value. By the time the full second phase is built out, Kengeri and Ulsoor may not have any competitive advantage from the Metro.

An assumption

There is an assumption that Metro connectivity would make a place more attractive. If you ask anyone to explain this assumption to you, they will usually explain it in terms of MG Road and Yeshwantpur and the places that are already attractive for one reason or another. It is not evident why Metro should make every station attractive. In fact, if you keep on building Metro in multiple phases, you will cancel out any advantage of individual stations.

Boston witnessed a hollowing-out of its main street immediately after the transit line was built, and Washington DC has many stations along the Metro where passengers would be scared to get on or off. There is no reason why that cannot happen in Bangalore too.

Metro can be a very important part of the evolution of the city, beginning soon. But to make it so, we must engage the complexity of urban development fully and with data, not just airy theory. It would also help if we understood the history of Metro operations in other countries, and the evolution of downtown areas in developing economies. Merely laying out the tracks won’t ensure that we stay on them.   ⊕

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