Opinion
Many cities across the world experienced exponential growth like Bengaluru, but they have also realised that the real solution isn’t in building expressways and flyovers, writes an activist.

A number of citizen activists have voiced their opposition to the elevated corridors project in Bengaluru that was recently announced by the Karnataka government. One among the groups is Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB), which has promise to oppose the project by forming an umbrella association of groups from all socio-economic levels. This piece is written by Srinivas Alavilli, who is co-Founder of Citizens For Bengaluru.

Is opposing the 102-km elevated corridor in Bengaluru considered ‘anti-development’? Absolutely not. Because the project estimated to cost Rs 25,000 crore is not ‘development’ by any logical definition unless you are the contractor or someone who clears the bills. 

Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy had last week given his approval for six elevated corridors, which will be spread over 102-kilometre. While the aim of the project is to “ensure safe, fast and congestion-free connectivity to different parts of the city”, the government plans to begin construction in 2019 and estimates that it will be completed in 8-10 years.  

It is indeed true that building infrastructure is a measure of development. But infrastructure for mobility in an ever-exploding city like Bengaluru means much more than building flyovers. Especially now, in 2018, when we have already spent thousands of crores of public money on road widening, one ways, flyovers, magic boxes and multiple elevated corridors. Yet there is no empirical or intuitive evidence that traffic congestion has reduced as a result. In fact, there is solid evidence that flyovers encourage even more private vehicles. We have more traffic congestion now than ever before. Nobody can deny that. Our city now has 79 lakh vehicles (just 6500 of them are buses!) and 40% of the pollution is due to vehicular emissions.

Therefore, it is imperative to review our understanding of ‘development’. 

Many cities across the world experienced exponential growth like Bengaluru. They also built expressways and flyovers and over time realised that doesn’t scale and the real solution is in designing cities to move people, not moving vehicles. 

For several decades no one understood the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoking. Today everyone does and governments design policies and spend enormous resources to discourage people from smoking. Same goes for plastic, fossil fuels. It is time we reset our understanding of development in terms of roads and cars based on overwhelming evidence.

Once the core design principle “move people, not vehicles” is accepted and internalized, you will think different. If you provide viable public transport options for people to go from A to B and make it comfortable, they will take it happily, as many of them feel compelled to use private vehicles. Similarly, if car ownership and maintenance become an expensive proposition, people tend to use less of them. This is not rocket science; every other city has done it.

The reason Bengaluru roads resemble a parking lot most of the day is not because there aren’t enough roads (the areas outside the ring road do need better road infrastructure), but because the share of public transport is not good enough. There are too many private vehicles and too little mass transport. We need better balance and we need it now.

Our policy makers did not prioritise public transport, even as they watched the city explode, for reasons best known to them. While Mumbai, Chennai and even Hyderabad have local trains, Bengaluru never delivered on the suburban train promise. Official reports and plans existed for more than 30 years but the petty politics of state and Centre (always different parties) denied this option. It is extremely bewildering and frustrating that some of the most highly congested areas like Outer Ring Road, Sarjapur and Electronic City, Whitefield, Airport, all have train tracks and stations for decades but have not been leveraged. We are paying the price for bad governance.

The only real public transport system in Bengaluru is the BMTC bus. With merely 6500 buses, they carry half the traffic of the city (45 lakh daily passengers). And yet, the government doesn’t buy new buses and doesn’t give priority to buses on the roads giving lame excuses like ‘where is the space for bus?’ when every single day 1500 new vehicles get registered in our city.  There is magical space for them but not an inch for buses! Bus is the Baahubali of Bengaluru and yet the narrative on traffic doesn’t include it, may be because bus is for ‘those poor people’ and not considered ‘development’.

Namma Metro is showing a lot of promise, and we should do everything to make it faster.  When we have two big projects like Namma Metro and suburban train in the works, that can clear a lot of congestion and change the dynamics of mobility in our city for the better, we should not undertake elevated corridors at least until these are fully ‘developed’. 

Among the barbs frequently thrown at activists is ‘beda brigade’, and ‘always opposing’. This again is a blatant lie, deliberately used to paint a negative image and discredit the rational argument.  Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB) did start with the #SteelFlyoverBeda but followed it with a series of Beku campaigns #ChukuBukuBeku#BusBhagyaBeku, #NadeyaluBidi Footpath Beku, and most recently #NammaSamitiNamagaagi which is about solving local issues within the urban governance framework of the constitution, the ward committees. CfB has always asked for due process and public consultation that is fair and open and nothing more. 

All of us are proud of Namma Bengaluru – politicians, officials, entrepreneurs, construction workers, pourakarmikas, software engineers, garment makers – all of us call it home. All of us are going to have to deal with the silent killer called pollution. We cannot afford to waste time with petty arguments and rhetoric that won’t do any good to anyone. We need to come together, agree on what sort of development we want and make it happen.

Views expressed are the author's own.