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Having a bus stop within easy walking distance, a usable pavement to get there, a single ticket to make trips on buses, Metro, suburban and MRTS trains and real-time information on all buses and trains now come within the realm of possibility, as the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) prepares to soon hold its first meeting under the chairmanship of Chief Minister M.K. Stalin.

CUMTA has been around for about a decade now, and Chennai has a basket of transport options, but they do not play together, affecting the city’s quality of life and economic growth. Now, with Phase II of the Metro set to stretch across 119 km in about two years, and a massive bus replacement programme in progress, the focus is on making specific agencies responsible for individual tasks.

On September 9 this year, Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary V. Irai Anbu issued a G.O. constituting four sub-committees to handle the big challenges facing Chennai on the mobility front. These panels with senior officers will look at the following;

  • Road Safety and Non-Motorised Transport
  • Multi-modal Integration
  • Urban Mobility Resilience
  • Digital Chennai

Officers from the Police, Chennai Metro, Southern Railway, Greater Chennai Corporation, School Education Department, Road Development Corporation, e-governance agency and District Collectors are on the panels, variously, and these are convened by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). These are members of the newly constituted panels.

CUMTA has been around for about a decade now, and Chennai has a basket of transport options, but they do not play together, affecting the city’s quality of life and economic growth.

Back to basics: walkability
After three decades of virtually unplanned expansion – the plans for satellite towns were restricted to Maraimalai Nagar and Manali New Town before liberalisation – the Tamil Nadu government has expanded the Greater Chennai area to 5,904 sq km, encompassing even many areas of Chengalpattu, Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram.

While the CMDA is busy drafting the Third Master Plan for this new Metropolitan Area, even the core of Chennai faces severe governance deficits in managing urban spaces. Chennai has become notorious for its lack of walking infrastructure, in spite of a Non-Motorised Transport Policy in place, and the focus is almost exclusively on the movement of vehicles.

There are few designated pedestrian crossings that are regarded by motorists, and visible traffic policing is nearly absent. Signalised, prominently marked pedestrian crossings are glaringly omitted. Footpaths are mostly broken, except near Chennai Metro stations and the Pondy Bazaar Pedestrian Plaza, and commercial interests dominate the walking space. While vendors need spaces, there is no regulation through credible Town Vending Committees as provided for in the Tamil Nadu Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood, Regulation of Street Vending and Licensing) Scheme and Rules. The Madras High Court has dissolved the town vending committees citing procedural questions.

Also Read: Road rules: High on fines, low on enforcement

For credible road safety measures and in order to meet the requirements of the law on rights of the disabled, the Chief Minister must order an urgent review of the physical infrastructure in Greater Chennai. The public can be asked to contribute to the exercise.

The Greater Chennai Corporation says there are 471 Bus Route Roads along 387 km and 34,640 interior roads of 5,270.33 km. How many of even the BRR have intact footpaths, leave alone interior roads? Since the city has expanded, the deficit is bound to be many times higher.

It does not require large outlays to repair broken infrastructure to make it usable. It just requires sustained work by the GCC and Highways Department. This is applicable to potholes, broken footpaths, debris and ubiquitous waste thrown in public spaces, non-working street lights, and neglected approaches to bus stands, suburban and MRTS railway stations.

An immediate order can be issued after the very first CUMTA meeting, to ensure that all MTC buses will stop at all Chennai Metro stations, and also at a walkable distance from suburban railway and MRTS stations.

Central Square, seen here in 2020 ahead of completion, is a multi-modal hub connecting long-distance trains, buses, Metro and suburban rail. It lacks a regulated autorickshaw system, and has poorly designated areas for app-based taxis

Help commuters, autorickshaws digitally
The Digital Chennai sub-committee has the exciting possibility of coming up with initiatives in the twin areas of real-time transport information and integrated ticketing. Initial reports indicate a move to create a mobile app that will integrate tickets across buses, Metro and trains.

Another challenging area is last mile connectivity. Here, in the absence of a scalable model, commuters are left haggling with autorickshaws, creating difficulties for visitors to the city. Not everyone is able to take a bus or train, or walk or cycle, requiring a predictable Intermediate Public Transport (IPT) option – in other words, autorickshaws running on meter, and regulated vans with fixed fare.

The task of integrating the currently unregulated IPT into the system is listed under the sub-committee on Multi-modal Integration. The problem thus far has been fluctuating fuel prices, which make it impossible to enforce a metered fare, as costs vary. Political will to solve the problem is also lacking. This job can be given to the Digital Chennai sub-committee, asking it to come up with a remunerative fare system for IPT and making recalibration of meters through software easy,  when fares need revision, just as petrol pumps seamlessly change their prices overnight.

The Digital Chennai panel has one critical task as per the G.O., which is to build a platform for citizen engagement on mobility. This long-neglected area can be advanced rapidly, by tapping big data. Commuters should be invited to input their mobility patterns and requirements and actual journeys mapped, in order to augment supply of options.

It is also important to use spatial tools to explore expansion of housing possibilities in mobility hubs, keeping away from water drainage sites. This aspect is currently left to amorphous real estate players who reap a heavy premium from public investments on mobility hubs, but give little to the exchequer.

Another challenging area is last mile connectivity. Here, in the absence of a scalable model, commuters are left haggling with autorickshaws, creating difficulties for visitors to the city. Not everyone is able to take a bus or train, or walk or cycle, requiring a predictable Intermediate Public Transport (IPT) option – in other words, autorickshaws running on meter, and regulated vans with fixed fare.

More, better buses
Bengaluru’s BMTC has scored over Chennai by introducing a fleet of distinct violet and white electric buses under the Switch branding. But Tamil Nadu’s capital can do one better by operating buses that fully comply with the law on disability. That means a single boarding step into the bus, and a floor no more than 400 mm high. There is resistance to this demand, in spite of High Court orders, citing higher costs and uneven road infrastructure.

What should matter for CUMTA is that the ideal bus to population ratio is 0.5 to 1.2 buses per 1,000 population as per the World Bank’s toolkit. By this token, Chennai needs, at one bus per 1,000 population, at least 8,000 buses covering the newly expanded Metropolitan Area.

Also Read: Challenges ahead for Chennai’s Third Master Plan

CUMTA will also see that the amended Motor Vehicles Act of 2019 provides for two things: operating last mile connectivity vehicles under new schemes, from Metro and railway stations, for instance, and a legal obligation for the government to maintain roads to comply with safety and technical standards. Action is needed in Chennai on both these counts, to raise civic standards in line with public expectations.

Information is also a crucial component of successful mobility. CUMTA cannot afford to drop the ball on this. Pro-active disclosure of decisions taken at each meeting on the CMDA/CUMTA website and on social media can inform the public on upcoming facilities and changes. When facilities are highlighted, the public is eager to use them. The Vande Bharat train no. 20607 starting from Chennai to Mysuru via Bengaluru is a classic example of building expectations among users ahead of the event. Clear, usable information is key.


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