The Death and Life of Great Metro Cities

With around 600 kms of Metro line projects under construction in 12 cities and over 500 km projects under consideration, it is of utmost significance and urgency to point out the highly unsustainable ways in which the so-called sustainable Metro projects are being implemented. Why should metro rail be established at the cost of other modes, especially the non-motorized modes of cycling and walking, and then profess the idea of multi-modal integration? Why are cities continually investing and compromising towards one grand idea as the sole solution to traffic problem rather than small constructive ideas weaved together? And can any futuristic planning be so bereft of and violent to a city’s past and present?

 

In the last one month, three major roads of Pune- Karve Road, Old Canal Road and Law College Road - underwent a significant change. A change considered both ‘planned’ and ‘necessary’. A change brought about at full tilt and yet reported surreptitiously. A change radical in its consequences but normalized and objectified in its implementation.

If you happen to visit these roads, you will notice unusual dust and debris on the sides of the road. Once this catches your attention, you will slowly realize that the sides themselves are no longer the same. What was once a paved and segregated margin for marginal road users i.e. pedestrians and cyclists, now stands dismantled. The new concrete paver blocks might allude to segregation but once you notice the absence of kerbs or barriers you will realize that these new sections are a mere extension of the motor carriageway. Visually and materially different, the margins are neither separated nor protected. Not anymore.

If luck is by your side, you may find the signage pole reading CYCLE TRACK or सायकल मार्ग with a petite white cycle drawn on a blue background abandoned in some inconspicuous corner of the road. If you have walked on these roads before, the change in your experience of walking will be quickly discernible. More so, if your walking time coincides with thousands of students arriving and leaving from a number of schools and colleges located on these roads. If your attention diverts, even slightly, from saving yourself from speeding vehicles and the obstructions on the now elusive footpaths, you may come across men in fluorescent red-silver jackets and yellow helmets putting up banners of Pune Metro on the footpaths. And finally, if you were to join the dots you’d realize that as a cyclist and pedestrian you are putting yourself in massive danger just so that the roads are wide enough to accommodate the vehicular traffic diverted from the nearby Paud and Karve Road for metro construction.

Welcome to yet another city that has begun its most aspirational journey towards becoming a ‘Metro’ City. A city that envisions to “create an energy efficient Metro Rail System of International standard which will enhance the quality of life of the citizens of Pune and be instrumental in the overall development of the city by making it more vibrant and attractive and utilize the full potential of ‘Green Energy’ in the form of Solar, Wind, etc”.

 

Signage of CYCLE TRACK lying upside down on Law College Road as the cycle tracks are being dismantled

 

MAHA Metro posters being put up on the footpath of Canal Road right outside SNDT

 

RESTRICTION OF (FOOT) TRAFFIC

The story of this change begins towards the end of January, this year. Maharashtra Metro Rail Corporation (MAHA Metro) scripted this change by proposing a plan for traffic diversion, after reportedly conducting detailed surveys of the Nal Stop-Paud Phata stretch. As per the plan, all vehicular traffic coming from Paud and Karve Road would be diverted onto the Canal Road outside SNDT on the left fork that will lead to Law College Road. Vehicles can then take a right turn at Athawale Chowk to reach Nal Stop and turn left to proceed along Karve Road to Deccan Gymkhana.

Expected to be implemented in the month of February, the said traffic regulation did not take place owing to two reasons. The civil work for the Vanaz-Ramwadi Metro corridor (14.66km) on the Karve road, the primary reason for which the traffic was to be diverted, did not start off as planned. Secondly, the Traffic Department, another important character in the story, recommended that there were other required “civil works” to be executed on the Karve Road, Canal Road and Law College Road in order to avoid “inconvenience to daily commuters.” This other set of work included:

1. Reduction of width of footpaths on all the three roads, viz., Karve Road, Law College Road and Canal Road
2. Shifting of PMPML bus stops
3. Removal of encroachments at Paud Phata
4. Removal of dividers at Athawale Chowk

This takes us to the third chapter of the story in the month of March when a city NGO- Pedestrians First- wrote a letter to PMC and the Commissioner of Police. Attention was brought to the huge inconvenience faced by pedestrians, cyclists and bus commuters and school children, owing to these new set of “civil works” being carried out. Prashant Inamdar of the NGO demanded “PMC should immediately take a policy decision that henceforth, footpath width would not be reduced and cycle tracks would not be removed for the purpose of road widening to facilitate Metro work.” This was followed by a Metro Samvaad on the 16th of March to address the problems faced by “civilians” on Karve Road. Citizens were assured that the metro work will be carried out in phases to ensure minimum traffic chaos, keeping the interest of all road users under consideration.

Apart from major plot twist and turns, the story has many contradictions in and of itself. The one which stands out is the dismantling of cycle tracks at Canal Road and Law College Road. Constructed about 12 years ago and extensively used by the school children in the vicinity, there is no official mention of the removal of cycle tracks in the entire narrative. Without any prior notification, information or Samvaad, the cycle tracks were dismantled. And since there is no mention of this contradiction there is complete silence over its rectification too.  

The second contradiction presents itself in the very understanding of the traffic situation by both MAHA Metro and Traffic Department; changes suggested and language employed being the signifiers of this contradiction. While the suggestion of traffic diversion and its adaptation in the current street scenario is carried out in a way that ensures smooth flow of traffic at the peril of the movement of pedestrians and cyclists, it is still termed as “traffic restriction”. However, the diversion is, at best, a regulation of vehicular traffic. The restriction, instead, is more on the movement of foot traffic, and in this case the cyclists too.

The contradiction is equally inherent to how the suggested changes are considered “necessary measures”. The questions of what is considered necessary, who decides the necessary, the specifics of necessary, all get camouflaged over the necessity of necessary. The inconvenience caused to pedestrians and cyclists is a collateral damage in the “assistance to Metro work” that neither gets rehabilitated nor talked about. Given that traffic diversion is seen as the most commonplace and evident measure during metro construction, it is important to point out the discriminatory practices carried out under the guise of something objective and normal. In this particular case, we see that permanent problems are being perpetuated by temporary traffic regulations. New transit problems are being created in establishing the infrastructure of what is considered a transit solution.

Since the traffic regulations will be implemented only after the Traffic Department conducts a review, it is important that the impact of these regulations on the pedestrians, cyclists and bus commuters are also reviewed.

 

Story of traffic diversion- A combined cycle track and footpath at Canal Road; clicked in October last year

Story of traffic diversion- The cycle track now dismantled

Story of traffic diversion- New paver blocks being put in place

Story of traffic diversion- Extension of main motor carriageway

 

METRO IS THE NEW SCIENCE

From the symptom let us come to the cause of the problem. What began in Kolkata in 1984, and in its reincarnation as DMRC’s (Delhi Metro Rail Corporation) pet project revolutionized the story of rapid transit in India - what's becoming the fifth pillar of democracy - the Metro Rail. Heralded as an engineering and infrastructural marvel, the Metro Rail has soon assumed the status of a magic pill- one solution for all transport problems.

The perceived success of Delhi Metro created an important context in which urban ambitions and citizens’ aspirations were shown to have found realization in a modernist project like Metro. Slowly but surely, Metro came to attain legitimacy as a ‘development project’ validated by a community of experts. The sheer scale of project, and resources involved provide Metro a neutral cushioning where it is insulated from questions of implementation. In this way, Metro is the new science in the field of transportation. As argued by Vandana Shiva and Ashis Nandy about the nature of science, Metro as the new science can also be seen as offering technological fixes for transit problems, but delinking itself from the new social, spatial, behavioural and transit problems it creates.

“Science stays immune from social assessment, and insulated from its own impacts. Through this split identity is created the sacredness of science.”

In this respect, the problems of Metro in Pune are no different from Metro in other cities of India. In portraying an imagined and desired future, it represents a negation of existing conditions in the city. Also, it is precisely the utopian difference between the two that guides the project. For instance, in the establishment of the infrastructure for Metro in Pune the utopian difference persists. This is done by ensuring that other modes of transport are compromised for the success of metro. The BRT project in Pune is suffering because of metro routes, the bus stops are being shifted, the footpaths are being reduced and the cycle tracks dismantled. Therefore, while it may be portrayed that Metro emerges out of the crises of the city’s transport system, in the process of Metro being implemented these crises and conflicts are only getting worse. This creates a state of profound dysfunction, where what is aspirational to build gains precedence over what should be built.

The aspirational value of Metro is also courtesy the seduction of a grand idea. A grand idea coming from a mindset of underlying condescension which assumes that progress is a one-way street, when it is anything but. The approach being that the glorious solution can be injected into the intended site; it will heal the rupture it is targeted at, and everything will be perfect after. An approach that can only be called hazardous because of its reductionism and oversimplification of a multi-faceted, complex and messy problem.  

It is imperative, therefore, that what happens or what is permissible during metro construction also makes its way to policies and DPRs. While concerns have been raised as a result of which all ToRs and DPRs of the MRTS projects are required to include feeder buses, public bike sharing and pedestrianization in the influence zones of the stations in the project cost, these revisions are still post-facto and de-linked with what has already been altered or dismantled while bringing the infrastructure in place. Also, these revisions are revenue-oriented keeping in mind the need to capture benefits into the dedicated revenue stream of the project so as to increase the non-fare box revenue and thereby the Financial Internal Rate of Return (The FIRR of MRTS projects should preferably be 8% or more for consideration by Government of India).

 

Banners of MAHA Metro being put up on the footpaths of Canal Road

 ET TU, PUNE?

Among the select few cities to have its own Pedestrian Policy to being the first city in India to have passed Urban Street Design Guidelines, from the first city to have proposed BRT to a city that recently passed a comprehensive Bicycle Plan, Pune is certainly a city of progressive transport policies. While there are issues regarding the implementation of all of above, they all speak to each other and come from an idea that prioritizes people over vehicles.

Metro, on the other hand, is an outlier which seems to override all existing policies and guidelines. It is starting a new politics of space and streets where metro line becomes the authoritative desire line. It is creating a new urban imagery and producing new social relations where heritage, low-income neighbourhoods and public places are compromised to make way for avenues and spaces for traffic.

And maybe it is not really a question of which infrastructure over which, which mode over which, and which road user over which. It is about the whole transport system and the choices and decisions made by the people at the helm of this system. What happens to the cycle tracks or footpaths may seem like a blip in the system of transport because people will continue to cycle, people will find ways to walk, people will negotiate, perhaps by putting themselves in greater danger, but they will. However, the fact that an authority decides, the fact that a city decides that the everyday reality and lives of people are less important in comparison to the grandeur and ‘necessity’ of Metro is much more worrisome.

 

Plans are afoot to demolish this walkway near SNDT and replace it with a new one.

 

The flyover near Paud Phata will not be touched however. Metro stretch is going to be parallel to this flyover

 Written by Swati Pathak