This September 16, Hardeep Singh Puri, Centre’s Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs, said no time limit could be specified for the sanction of the ORR-Airport Metro line (from Silk Board to airport). He further said that Metro projects are cost-intensive and hence require extensive inter-ministerial consultations.
In this context, members from three civic groups – Bangalore Environment Trust, Praja-RAAG and Citizens for Citizens – have written to Puri, requesting a thorough, comprehensive review of all infrastructure projects in the city. This is because the transport needs of the city will change drastically in view of COVID, says their letter. For example, a large section of people would continue to work from home, many are shifting to the city outskirts, etc., and this would change travel patterns.
The letter adds that the approval of suburban rail and improvement of BMTC services should be a bigger priority than resource-intensive Metro lines. It also suggests several measures to improve public transport systems.
Following is the full text of the letter, with minimal edits:
The COVID pandemic has affected urban mobility in a significant manner. The observable key changes/trends are as follows:
1. Reduced travel demand due to WFH (Work From Home)
As of August 2020, over 90% of employees in Infosys Ltd and Wipro Ltd, and 100% in the case of Dell Technologies, were working from home. Despite this, Infosys COO U B Pravin Rao said that the model has not disrupted employee productivity.
Fewer people travelling to offices has thinned out traffic, and reduced pressure on the poor-quality public infrastructure. According to a survey by the job site Naukri.com(reported on August 25), WFH jobs have increased three times compared to pre-COVID levels, as more companies announced the extension of remote working policies. TCS (Tata Consultancy Services) is set to allow 75% of its workforce to work from home by the year 2025.
Once the pandemic subsides, employees will return to offices but still a significant percent will continue to work from home. This will mean less commute, particularly in Bengaluru which has a large workforce in IT.
2. Shift towards city outskirts
According to Times of India, Bengaluru, dated July 18, the demand for rental residential properties in some core city areas has shrunk because of the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. While more people are looking for spacious homes on the outskirts, in many places, rents have fallen or are being renegotiated – a rare occurrence in the tech capital’s otherwise thriving rental-housing segment. As this trend is expected to continue in the near future, roads and transportation infrastructure will need to cater to people moving away from the city towards the suburbs.
3. Modes of travel and their pandemic resilience
In Bengaluru, the resumption of various modes transport (post lock-down) happened as follows:
- Auto rickshaws, cabs were allowed from May 19.
- Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) started its bus operations from July 22.
- Bangalore Metro resumed its services in a limited way from September 7.
It is evident that the pandemic-resilience of different modes vary, and this will have to be a factor while deciding on future expansion.
4. Pandemic and Pollution
On June 24, the online magazine Citizen Matters reported: “An analysis of air quality data has shown that air pollution (measured as PM2.5) was reduced by an average of 28% in Bengaluru during COVID-19 lockdown. The analysis was done by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), using data collected by Bengaluru’s Healthy Air Coalition. Additional analysis of satellite data also confirms this downward trend.”
To encash this positive fall-out of the pandemic, the government should implement suitable measures to control air pollution. These should become an integral part of the planning process of pending/new projects.
5. Development beyond Bengaluru
On July 23, the New Industrial Policy 2020-25 of Karnataka was announced, which aims at holistic development of the State and looks beyond Bengaluru with an aim to promote tier-2 and tier-3 cities as engines of economic growth.
This policy will surely give a fillip to the growth of other cities of Karnataka, and will help decongest Bengaluru to a considerable extent.
6. Sale of bicycles
Times of India, Bengaluru, reported on June 14 that according to Venkatesh Shivarama (Venky) of Wheel Sports, there has been a 60% rise in queries for cycles through calls and visits. Of the queries, 50% translate into sales. Venky, who has been into the cycle business for about 12 years, attributes this to commuters’ fear of using public transport during COVID.
Cycling is a classic example of sustainable and affordable urban mobility, and must be encouraged.
7. Airport connectivity
The proposed Metro line to Kempegowda International Airport from Silk Board via K R Puram (more than 50 km) with fund requirement of about Rs 20000 crore, will be completed after five years (or may be 10 years) depending on the feasibility of the project and availability of resources.
However, we would like to bring to your kind attention to the new development of a halt station at the airport by BIAL management and South Western Railways. Infrastructure of truly international standards has come up with a small investment, and in less than an eight-month period.
Further railway capacity augmentation through electrification and crossing stations is under progress, which will bring suburban train services from all parts of Bengaluru to the airport. This facility is expected to be opened a few months from now. This halt station development has been highly appreciated by none other than the Railway Minister Shri Piyush Goyal.
It is our sincere opinion that the above factors (combined with the funds crunch being experienced both at the Center and the States) point to the need for a comprehensive and thorough review of all the mobility infrastructure projects, particularly the Metro which is quite resource-intensive. We also feel that COVID has provided a hidden opportunity for future-oriented policies which can benefit the common man in the city.
We strongly feel that more than Metro, what Bengaluru needs is drastic and quick improvement of its bus services (BMTC) and also immediate final approval for the much-delayed suburban train system.
In his white paper ‘Post COVID-19 World: Sustainable Transportation-Interventions and Solutions Required‘, Prof Dr Ashish Verma, Indian Institute of Science, proposes the following:
COVID is the best opportunity for local authorities to come up with policies and make the transport system sustainable. A few measures that can be taken are mentioned below:
- Priority lanes for buses and separate lanes for high occupancy vehicles
- Integration of auto-rickshaws/ride-sharing services with bus/Metro system, to provide first and last mile connectivity
- Subsidised fare for people preferring integrated public transport
- Segregation of commuters by having measures like staggering of work hours, morning and afternoon shifts, allowing WFH/study-from-home one day per week
- Monthly pass for delivery personnel in integrated public transport.
- Data shows that pollution has reduced considerably in about 90 cities all over India. This could be taken as a cue to enforce restrictions on personal vehicle usage, possibly in the form of limited number of days a person/ household can use personal vehicles.
We wish to emphasize the following:
1. Integration of multimodal public transport systems is the need of the day, but this is lacking in Bengaluru. The present situation has given an excellent opportunity to correct the same on priority, between Metro, BMTC and BBMP.
2. Giving priority to other modes of public transport like suburban rail, pedestrian facilities, disabled-friendly public transport system.
3. With COVID norms in place which have imposed some limitations, there is an urgent need to assess the travelling capacity in Metro trains and improve other modes of public transport.
4. Many citizens of Bengaluru are working with state and central governments for improving the public transport system and for creating awareness among citizens on increasing their use of public transport system, walking and other non-motorised transport.
In the light of the above, we earnestly request you to set up an Independent Expert Panel to carry out a quick and comprehensive review at the earliest. Many of our colleagues will be happy to present their concrete, detailed proposals for the consideration of the panel.
[Addendum: The headline of this article has been modified post-publishing. Changes have been made to the headline and introduction of the article for clarity.]