Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Rise of the Flyovers - Delhi

This was written in October 2003

The flyover network at the AIIMS junction in Delhi makes impressive viewing. As a child, I remember the photographs of the triple underpass in Dallas near the Texas Book Depository, made famous by the tragic assassination of a young American President. This site is just as impressive.

There are a lot of happy people in Delhi in recent years on account of the network of flyovers that have cropped up. Some, like those who stay in Greater Kailash II and Chittaranjan Park, have at last seen the sun set on the Savitri Bottleneck.

Some discussions and observations with a few others throw up some interesting points.

A frequent visitor to our house, changes bus at AIIMS. The flyover has lengthened her walk between bus stops at the intersection. Visual reconfirmation on the flyover network is that there is no footpath for pedestrians. Walkers take the narrow divider in centre of the road when walking across from AIIMS towards Safdarjung flyover. An extra 750 m of walking when the sun is 40 degrees C plus will throw up instant opportunities for refreshment counters at the ends of these flyovers. Pedestrians will use their own money to recover because of the publicly paid-for flyover.

These flyovers represent no particular joy for those commuting on their own motive power or those of animals. Cyclists, pushcarts, bullock-carts, cycle-rickshaws and pedestrians, not only have a longer walk, but must now climb uphill on what was earlier a flat track. So many instead chose to take the roads other than the flyover (and wait at the traffic light anyway).

Commuters in buses don’t really benefit from the flyovers since the buses have to halt every now and then for entry and exit of commuters. The pick up points are just off the flyover, before and after, where the deluge of buses clogs the traffic in any case. Some young friends who use contract buses don’t seem to experience any alteration in overall commuting time.

In the South Delhi area, the flyovers seem to have pushed the traffic problem to the next signal! In fact you can now speed off the IIT intersection flyover going towards Nehru Place and wait for a long time at the Panchsheel intersection.

Friends who work in Okhla Industrial Areas now have to plough through more signals to get in and out of work during peak hours.

So who have the flyovers really benefited if they haven’t really accelerated throughput for the bulk of road users and made things worse for pedestrians and users of public transport?

Immediate beneficiaries of flyovers are the owners of private transport vehicles and road users during off-peak hours. Peak hours in Delhi include morning office hours, evening office traffic and lunch time traffic. (try traveling around at 2 pm on most afternoons). Turns out these are the car-owning rich guys.

Flyovers don’t come cheap. In the city, they are paid for by the government (or by the citizens). It would be worthwhile evaluating (not just anecdotally like this article) the impact that flyovers have had on Delhi’s road users and the total costs of constructing these flyovers. We can then compare the cost of these flyovers with the cost of undertaking the following actions that could increase traffic flows:

1. Making residential areas and commercial areas on main roads find their own parking lots for their friends and customers. The Yusuf Sarai bottleneck is most often due to due to badly parked cars in addition to the almost two lanes of road on each side used up by parked vehicles. A similar situation exists on the stretch of road between Defence Colony and Kotla Mubarakpur and at Green Park market. This is use of public space (roads laid and maintained by the government) for a few private users, at no costs. This, in a city where real estate prices are extremely high. This is true for some residential areas as well.

2. Correcting errant drivers who cut across lanes, particularly at intersections. On perfectly symmetrical and wide roads at intersections, traffic throughput is almost disgracefully slow due to a few drivers who believe in following the shortest distant between two points, preventing other vehicles from going through.

3. Ensuring that proper and wide bus bays are built so that buses don’t end up clogging the road at bus stops. Enforcement of queuing of buses at these stops would help things further. We could factor in the costs of employing cops at major bus stops to enforce the rules.

4. Providing escalators to pedestrians on arterial roads and ensuring that pedestrians use them. Aggregate costs of such escalators could still work out cheaper than the flyovers.

5. Better quality studies of traffic flows and synchronizing lights on arterial roads to ensure smooth flows.

After we’ve costed this list and implemented them we can figure out where the flyovers are really needed. In the meanwhile, there are some categories of people who have definitely benefited from these flyovers : - the companies and contractors who won the bids to construct them and the subsequent contracts that will be handed out to maintain these flyovers. We can reasonably envisage a few corrupt civic officials also benefiting (they haven’t covered themselves with glory in recent times).

Another category that will benefit will be from amongst the poorest – Delhi’s homeless. Spaces under the flyover will provide shelter, atleast till some Union Minister of Urban development decides that such usage constitutes encroachment and is illegal. This will be lauded by many other citizens of Delhi. (At least one lady from an elite neighbourhood on nationally televised talk show suggesting we put up catchy posters at village bus stops and railway stations encouraging these people to stay at home.)

For car-borne commuters like me, well, we can safely park our cars on the main road and do our shopping.

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