• The need for speed: What good are new roads when they are incapable of moving people and goods quickly?

    “Sir, can’t you pass a central law and solve the Bengaluru traffic problem for us”, went the impassioned plea from Flipkart’s executive chairman Sachin Bansal to Union road transport minister Nitin Gadkari at an awards event for startups recently. Bansal was not the only one to petition the minister that day, and Bengaluru was not the only city whose traffic problem was brought to Gadkari’s notice.

    Because of poor quality roads and virtually non-existent traffic planning and management, Indian city dwellers spend far too many hours on the road every day. If time is as precious as money, our cities impose a hefty tax on us, and they still lose more money. One estimate pegs the economic loss because of Bengaluru traffic congestion at Rs 3,700 crore a year, including a whopping 50 crore litres of annual fuel losses. Extrapolate these figures to Delhi, Mumbai and other Indian cities and we have a full-blown economic crisis on hand.

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi has championed startups. I wonder if Bansal’s plea reached his ears, for there is nothing that puts an Indian startup in a more disadvantageous position compared to its foreign counterparts than the crippling infrastructure around it. Imagine the hidden cost Flipkart pays for delayed shipments because the delivery boys keep getting stuck in traffic all the time.

    I recently left Gurgaon’s Cyber City in the evening hours with a French client who made a telling point during our hour-plus commute to south Delhi. “I can easily do 5 or more meetings in a day even if they are spread across in Singapore or any European city. In Delhi or Bengaluru, I can never plan more than 2 or maximum 3.”

    Gadkari’s ministry measures its performance in kilometres of new roads built per year. What good are these new roads, or the existing roads for that matter, when they are rank incapable of moving people and goods quickly? It takes anywhere between 5-7 hours to drive between Jaipur and Delhi – instead of the 3 hours it should take a modern car to cover the 250-odd kilometre journey.

    Also, India has the worst record of road accident deaths in the world; every 4 minutes a person dies on our roads. That awards evening, the minister patiently explained that city roads are not his ministry’s responsibility, these actually fall under local city municipalities, or peculiarly in Delhi’s case under the Public Works Department of the state government.
    Even if we know who to blame for our broken, potholed and permanently congested roads, we still cannot do anything meaningful about it. But surely the prime minister of India can? His promise of an economically developed India is held to ransom by some of the most corrupt and incompetent civic bodies. He should help pass laws to give urban transportation the urgent and focused attention it truly deserves.
    One of these laws must define the standards for road construction, design and safety, like the vaunted German Autobahn standards or the American federal specifications for road construction. Centre must make these standards universally applicable to all civic, state and central bodies responsible for our roads; while simultaneously making any violation prosecutable, like the Germans have done.

    This pan-India road standardisation alone can potentially fix half of our problems with traffic. The best of our roads collect potholes and slow us down because the constructor never bothered to camber them properly, or the municipality never thought of ensuring adequate water drainage on the kerbside.Because there are no universal lane markings, drivers indiscriminately cut into visible or invisible lanes and slow down the entire traffic behind them. Because there is no standard mandating pedestrian walkways, all pedestrians turn into jaywalkers, causing serious traffic jams, besides risking their own life and limb.

    Of course, the best standards, rules or laws amount to nothing if they are not enforced. Part 2 of fixing our traffic crisis involves centrally supervised enforcement because clearly our states and municipalities are not up to task. WHO’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2015 gave India a rating of 3 or 4 out of 10 for enforcement of laws on speed limits, drunk driving or wearing helmets on two wheelers.

    Better enforcement will not only reduce accidents and save precious lives; it would also mean that vehicles aren’t parked illegally and obstructing traffic, keep to their lanes and that roads themselves are free of potholes and illegal encroachment.

    The final part of the solution is simply to create effective public and alternate transportation systems that take vehicular traffic off our roads. Mass rapid transportation systems like the Delhi Metro work extremely well, but our cities are decades away from having a functional citywide system that also seamlessly integrates with other forms of transport.

    In fact, the continuing short-sightedness in planning effective urban transportation is apparent when you see how cities like Bengaluru and Hyderabad went on to build airports well outside city limits without putting a high-speed rail link to the city centre, like nearly every other major metropolitan city around the world has done.

    As a country, we have so far failed to see the link between fast and efficient urban transportation and economic growth. The prime minister should take the wheel in his own hands. On the lines of Swachh Bharat and Digital India, he should give us Gatisheel Bharat. Garrett Grayson Jersey

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