The incoming BJP government was quick to announce that one of its top priorities would be to improve infrastructure in the capital city, especially in transport. This is not the first time that such a promise has been made by the state government, but there are reasons to believe that this time the political will is stronger, and also that the administrative capacity to actually achieve some of the objectives is now available with various departments.
There are, at the outset, three kinds of choices to be made. Once these are settled, the rest of the effort towards making Bangalore a more liveable place will be considerably easier.
First, there has to be co-ordinated management of departments whose functions are critical to urban mobility. To this end, the Metropolitan Transport Authority (it exists only as a committee) was established some years ago, but thus far its function has been sporadic, and not in an integrated way. Instead, individual departments continue to act in silos, and meet as members of a co-ordinating committee from time to time. There are too many limitations with this approach.
Instead, what is needed is a statutory MTA that takes over functions of the line departments – police, municipality, BMTC, etc. – wherever there is strong impact from such functions on mobility. The line departments must then depute senior officers to the MTA. The Authority must also be headed by a senior public official, and take charge of day-to-day oversight of mobility operations through a professional office headed by a CEO, recruited through competitive selection if necessary.
Second, there must be clarity on land-use objectives and area-wise development plans. Do we want to de-congest the city centre? Do we want distributed shopping destinations, or clusters serving individual neighbourhoods? What is the balance between public and private transport that is appropriate? Should the arterial roads be developed in a criss-crossing way, so that there is more than one option for any long journey? Should BMTC’s hub-and-spoke system of locating bus terminals be rationalised to place buses more efficiently? Should high-volume destinations like our software parks be served by special fleets, using cross-subsidies between the private and public sectors?
The answers to these questions will in turn drive the operational choices, and the priorities for implementing them. For instance, a focus on ‘junction elimination’ along arterial routes could lead to a systematic roll-out of the quick-build underpasses that the city has embraced lately. The ‘magic box’ designs are somewhat unfathomable, but the principle of unimpeded movement along arterial pathways is a good one, and will bring relief to the many neighbourhood streets that are now doubling up as short-cuts for huge volumes of traffic. A more effective design, and efficient selection of the order in which to take up work at the various junctions can help greatly.
Similarly, rationalisation of BMTC bus routes based on actual mobility patterns in the city should also be taken up. There is a significant mismatch between the way in which people move about in the city, and the routes that are operated by the transport corporation. As a result, several neighbourhoods are under-served by public transport, even though the fleet strength is among the highest in the country. Also, the ‘no direct bus’ complaint has become far too common, and re-rationalisation is necessary to put an end to this.
A third choice to be made involves pricing. This is especially important, with fuel prices mounting. Without proper consideration of price, we will end up in a situation where comfortable mobility is the privilege of the elite alone, and everyone else is left to fend for himself, with no meaningful options provided by the government. That would be politically difficult, besides being unfair.
Fairness in pricing requires high statesmanship, because it is not easy to sell in this age of individualism and consumerism. The city must decide whether it will accept some losses on account of creating equitable and available options for mobility, in exchange for the economic impetus that can provide. Oddly enough, we seem to have few qualms about high expenditure on inefficient infrastructure like the Metro and fly-overs, but more malleable and equitable alternatives have been shot down as ‘wasteful’.
The opportunity to make these choices in pursuit of the greater common good still remains, but with increasing volumes of traffic, and continuing migration into the city, the window of time to address the short-comings is a small one. During the last 18 months, the previous Chief Minster’s 10-point agenda, which included some powerful thrusts in introducing technology-led approaches to tackling the city’s mobility problems, has laid a reasonable foundation, albeit a little slowly. If we make the right choices today, we can leverage that foundation well, and begin to keep the new Chief Minister’s promise to the city.