I haven’t lived in this wonderful city for 50 years, and have based some of the historical overview from the experiences and personal accounts of some individuals, expressed through books or on formal occasions. At a panel discussion about seven to eight years ago, Justice N. Santosh Hegde recalled a time when people used to wear sweaters in April, clearly hinting why Bengaluru, in the 1970s, used to be called an air-conditioned city. He also mentioned that they could easily cycle to every part of Bengaluru easily.
In Bangalore Swinging in the 70s, the author takes a trip down memory lane to remember a time when people walked everywhere, and the norm was to stop and warmly greet each other. “To visit a place where tongas were summoned for long journeys and riding a cycle without a kerosene oil lamp was a serious crime.”
With these reflections, I feel what better could be the vision of Bengaluru’s future, but to bring back this past glory of Bengaluru in terms of the Quality of Life (QoL) that this city used to offer.
When one looks at the past five decades, to examine how mobility needs have changed over time and what kind of transport system development was offered to satisfy the travel demand, one can see close linkage with the QoL.
Clearly, today’s Bengaluru has seen a substantial degradation of the QoL, as compared to what it was in 70s, and in many ways it is closely linked to what has been the focus of transport system development of our elected representatives and policy-makers.
It was the 1980s that proved to be a turning point, when Karnataka and, specifically, Bengaluru became the Information Technology (IT) capital of the country. With a galaxy of opportunities opening, Bengaluru has seen the doubling of its population within two decades between the 1991, and the 2011 census.
This had a corresponding impact on the exponential increase in demand for travel, not just within the city, but also to national and international destinations. Bengaluru suddenly became a big city from a small one in no time. With high-paying jobs in the IT sector and a hub of other important sectors, such as research institutions, space and aerospace organisations, industry, manufacturing etc., the growth in travel demand has been in terms of people opting for personal mobility options.
This has led to an explosive growth in car ownership and usage in the city.
The fallout is a huge imbalance between the travel demand and the supply, with city roads being never sufficient to handle the exponential growth of vehicles with an acceptable level of service (LOS). Connected to this is acute traffic congestion, and also air and noise pollution.
When we look at the growth of transport supply, policymakers and urban local bodies (ULBs) predominantly gave preference to traditional road infrastructure measures, as a solution to these problems, without realising that it would trap the city in a vicious circle of congestion, and only lead to an increase in exhaust emissions of vehicles.
In the last two to three decades, Bengaluru has seen the addition of several new roads, ring roads, flyovers and underpasses, elevated corridors etc. Even today there is no end to the proposals for such measures.
However, even technology-based interventions like B-TRAC and the Traffic Management Centre can do little in offering a sustainable mobility solution for the city.
Further, this focus on road-based measures kept shrinking the space for safe and comfortable walking and cycling, making pedestrians and cyclists the most vulnerable road users today from the time of the 70s.
BMTC, the city’s lifeline
However, a relatively brighter spot has been the bus transport system still handling the lion’s share of trips [about 45%]. Tracing its history from the Bangalore Transport Service (BTS) to a dedicated corporation, the BMTC, in 1997, bus routes are now in three digits, with a fleet size of more than 6,000 buses.
However, even BMTC has failed to keep pace with the exponential growth in travel demand with its fleet size being stagnant for quite some time. It faces growing operational losses, owing to a lack of priority to movement of public buses.
By train and air
Although late by a couple of decades, the city also saw the beginning of the much-needed Namma Metro services in 2011. With a current operational network of about 42 km, it is still a miniscule-level operation, to make any substantial impact in providing a sustainable mobility option to the city, and needs to quickly grow to at least more than 250 km of network length.
With a good number of railway stations, the city could have used this available railway infrastructure to boost the transport system supply through a long-term and sustainable suburban rail service.
With the exponential growth in national and international travel demand, since the beginning of the IT sector in Bengaluru, the city has also witnessed growth of air transport services in the last couple of decades.
The original HAL airport, which was located about 10 km from the city centre, had an apron capacity of parking only six aircraft, which was woefully inadequate.
It led the government to build the Kempegowda International Airport (KIAL) at Devanahalli, at a distance of about 40 km from the city centre in 2008. HAL was closed for commercial operations.
KIAL currently caters to about 33 million passengers annually and has kept a good pace of infrastructure expansion since its beginning, with further ongoing construction of a completely new terminal.
However, lack of sustainable options for access to and from the airport has led to a huge addition of vehicle-kms travelled on cars.
This has not just added to the city’s traffic congestion, but also long travel timings [often much more than the actual flying time] for people trying to reach KIAL from different parts of the city.
With the ill-conceived idea of an elevated toll-way road to the airport, which has only increased the total origin-destination (OD) travel time instead of decreasing it, the authorities wasted huge investment, which otherwise should have been ideally pumped into providing a metro rail line.
While KIAL has taken many initiatives to be a green airport, it should also focus on airport access to and from the city as an integral part of its green initiative.
The fast completion of metro rail connectivity is important. It should also work with the government to initiate suburban rail services to the halt station near it and run services between halt station and the airport.
To conclude, while the city has grown and emerged as a key national and international destination in the last five decades, it has failed in creating a sustainable transport system for the city.
A much better and clearer vision is required among our politicians and policy-makers to bring back the quality of life that people used to enjoy in Bengaluru in the 1970s.
(Ashish Verma is associate professor, transportation systems engineering, Dept. of Civil Engg, Indian Institute of Science.)
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