The news about truck traffic in Delhi coming down a day after the Eastern Peripheral Expressway (EPE) was thrown open came as pleasant news to many people, for it meant that with less congestion on the city’s roads, there would be less traffic jams, less idling and less emissions.
Ring roads, or beltways, are a common feature in Indian cities but most of them have turned into proper city roads, choked with traffic. A few cities have, however, successfully managed to escape this by building a dedicated access-controlled corridor around them, while a lot more are still considering building them. Among them, the most well-known would be Hyderabad’s eight-lane, access-controlled Outer Ring Road, the six-lane Chennai bypass and the six-lane Outer Ring Road in Chennai, and the Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise (NICE) Peripheral Ring Road – albeit partially encircling the city – in Bengaluru.
In any major Indian city, it is important to understand that there are two distinct forms of traffic on the road – local traffic and outstation traffic. For any city to thrive, this distinction has to be kept in mind when designing public transport corridors, such as metro rail and bus rapid transit systems (BRTS) and the all-important flyovers at major junctions.
When locals opposed building of a bypass around Mandya along the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, the argument was that it would take away livelihoods from local businesses. But the fact is, a bypass wouldn’t do much damage, for those who are looking to enter the city will continue to do so. In fact, the lack of a bypass and subsequent congestion due to mixed traffic within the city would result in productivity losses elsewhere, such as the goods and shipments sector.
Yes, public transport is important, but so are high-speed roads.
The standard argument that arises whenever any high-speed road project such as a flyover, an expressway or an elevated corridor is planned is that it will only benefit private vehicle owners. However, the argument is not entirely true due to a flawed line of reasoning.
Public transport by itself needs diversity in terms of how it operates. For instance, if every bus is going to be identical and stop at every bus stop, then the average car user would not use it. Instead, if public transport offers better buses, air-conditioned ones or buses with fewer stops or those that take flyovers over congested junctions, they may very well see better patronage.
The rationale behind expressways in cities
While a common argument is that construction of such corridors would only benefit private car owners (a flawed argument that drove the opposition to the steel flyover in Bengaluru), the impact of such corridors is quite significant and visible. The very fact that the EPE saw nearly 50,000 trucks give the capital city a miss on the day of opening is a testament to this. The NICE Peripheral Ring Road in Bengaluru allows trucks going from Mumbai to Chennai – the two arms of the Golden Quadrilateral that meet in the city – to bypass Bengaluru, while also giving high-speed access to high-density neighbourhoods such as Electronics City. Similarly, the elevated Eastern Freeway in Mumbai and the proposed Port-Maduravoyal Elevated Expressway in Chennai would offer unhindered connectivity from the outskirts of the cities to their port terminals that are located in the heart of the city.
Bridging the gap between transit
While both modes can co-exist, there needs to be a greater connection between them. For instance, buses taking the freeway is the first step. What if the expressway has a limited number of exits or none at all that prevent their efficient usage?
If we go a step further, we realise that such corridors provide ample opportunity for public transport as well.
Chennai’s Outer Ring Road has been built with a 20 metre-wide median that can be used for rail services in the future. Similarly, the proposed Virar-Alibaug multimodal corridor encircling the Mumbai Metropolitan Region is a high-speed expressway corridor that will feature a bus rapid transit system and rail services along its median. When it comes to existing roads, a monorail was proposed along Bengaluru’s NICE Peripheral Ring Road. However, due to the prevalent bureaucracy and red-tape, none of them have materialised.
Exploring the Chicago model
Chicago, the third largest city and metropolitan region in the United States, has an expressway-rail combination, one that came up in the 1960s, just after the time when president Dwight Eisenhower had initiated the interstate highway system. Much of Chicago’s Congress Line travels along the central median of interstates 90 and 94 (I-90 and I-94).
In the case of India, our quasi-federal structure comes in the way when it comes to integrating infrastructure. Complete federalism in the US allows for federal highways and local rail systems to be entirely built and operated by the city itself, while in India, highways usually are under the centre’s jurisdiction while rail systems could either be in the hands of the centre or the state. In a few states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat, bus services alone come under the city’s purview while other cities aren’t that fortunate.
While the short-term goal would be to get more buses onto urban expressways (Mumbai and Bengaluru currently do operate them), the vision for the long run should incorporate rail corridors onto them.
For instance, setting up a metro rail corridor along a peripheral expressway and then connecting it to the city would enable setting up of satellite transit hubs. It would also provide better connectivity to airports given how newer airports come up far from the city for want of land.
As economic zones in major cities move towards peripheral areas, the centre needs to coordinate with states and cities. It needs to come up with a proper system – one that not only has expressways with rail corridors – but also with proper connectivity to these newer corridors in the form of feeder services.
Expressways do a great job of keeping outstation traffic away from the city, thus ensuring faster movement, especially in the goods and shipments sectors. Reduced traffic in the city directly results in lesser emissions and thus better air quality. Adding public transport to the mix just makes things a lot better.
Srikanth’s interests include public transit, urban management and transportation infrastructure.
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