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Whether smaller cities like Madurai and Coimbatore need costly Metro rail systems is a widely discussed theme, and the critiques start to bite when the pattern of underinvestment in existing ‘low capacity’ systems such as buses, mini-buses and smaller vehicles shows little effort to get it right. Even Tamil Nadu’s capital city is only now drumming up an effort to introduce ‘integrated public transport’ at an unspecified date through the regulator CUMTA.
Madurai and Kovai are part of Tamil Nadu’s weakly planned and managed urbanisation trend, and the problems with mobility, pollution, and reduced productivity are sought to be addressed by various studies, including, in Coimbatore’s case, by the German-assisted Smart City report of 2019.
Recent media presentations on the Metro projects for the two Tamil Nadu cities by Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) highlighted the plans for stations and alignments. Madurai would have three underground stations including one near the famed Meenakshi temple, and a total of 27 stations, across the 32 km urban rail system.
In Coimbatore’s case, priority has been given to proposed lines going northeast to the airport and Neelambur and north towards Sathyamangalam, a total of about 39 km, with two other important corridors on the roads to Trichy and Palakkad to follow sometime in the future. The bills for two projects, as currently estimated by the State government are of the order of Rs.9,000 crore for Coimbatore and Rs. 8,500 crore for Madurai. The completion window for these projects, now only in the detailed project report stage, is between four and five years.
Madurai and Kovai are part of Tamil Nadu’s weakly planned and managed urbanisation trend, and the problems with mobility, pollution, and reduced productivity are sought to be addressed by various studies, including, in Coimbatore’s case, by the German-assisted Smart City report of 2019
“Supply of transport infrastructure will need to keep pace if urbanisation is to take place without a slowdown in economic growth or a loss in living standards,” according to transport literature published by the OECD. This principle should have been reflected in robust investments in plain old systems in Tamil Nadu in the form of high-quality and higher capacity buses along arterial corridors, and a modern scheme of smaller vehicles that would have reduced dependence on personal vehicles. This has never taken off.
Chennai, the capital city, has a stunted bus system in real terms, with about 3,500 buses, since timely replacement of buses and raising of technical standards failed to take place. The result has been a two-wheeler boom, leading to severe congestion and pollution, and loss of quality of life. Free travel for women has generated demand for travel among the less affluent, but there are not enough buses leading to overcrowding.
After the COVID-19 slowdown, the emphasis worldwide has been on “building back smarter”, using green technologies to combat climate change, better design to facilitate universal access, an emphasis on public infrastructure over private choices and building health through nature-centric design. Mobility is a major area in such policymaking.
Yet, Tamil Nadu’s infrastructure push has centred more on new road building to accommodate growing populations of personal vehicles and on expensive rail systems, while expansion of buses, newer models of shared mobility and non-motorised transport got headline mileage but no real support.
Coimbatore has no urban rail to speak of and relies almost entirely on crowded buses, which are run by a mix of private operators and a government transport corporation. The Smart City report coordinated by the German firm Morgenstadt through special agency City Lab, based on 2015 data, says 42% of Coimbatore trips are made by bus, 21% by two-wheelers, 17% by cars, 14% by walk and only a small 5% by autorickshaws and 1% by bicycles.
Since the two proposed Metro lines emerge from a common point near the Coimbatore Collectorate, and there is no foreseeable urban rail link to the West and South of the city (towards suburbs on Palakkad and Pollachi roads), the bus will remain a key provider that will have to interface with rail at the start point
Although a Metro for Kovai has been discussed for years now, the previous AIADMK government focused more on building an elevated road from near the airport to very near the same area now proposed for Metro convergence at Uppilipalayam. The long drawn-out elevated road construction has caused massive traffic congestion at key junctions in the city, like Lakshmi Mills (site of a new massive Lulu mall), Peelamedu with its string of schools and colleges and markedly near the airport.
Since the two proposed Metro lines emerge from a common point near the Coimbatore Collectorate, and there is no foreseeable urban rail link to the West and South of the city (towards suburbs on Palakkad and Pollachi roads), the bus will remain a key provider that will have to interface with rail at the start point. It is also unclear how the emerging elder-living facilities that are expanding in northwest Coimbatore will be connected with the new urban rail, using an integrative model that relies on buses and comfortable, accessible vans.
Without a new scheme to raise the quality and capacity of Coimbatore’s antiquated bus system, this will be difficult to achieve. Work on the agreed portions of Coimbatore Metro are not expected to start for another year-and-a-half.
Madurai’s semi-rural character and its attempts to leverage a few tourism strongpoints such as temples and historical sites makes it imperative to come up with an integration model that facilitates the tourist, using a combination of rail-bus-paratransit options. This has not taken place even in Chennai, and has much less scope to be quickly rolled out elsewhere. Moreover, all new mass mobility projects have an “upsetting” effect for existing monopolies and special interests – such as autorickshaw lobbies and a rigid bus bureaucracy as in Chennai – and these result in stunted growth of new mobility.
Without comprehensive mobility plans for Madurai and Coimbatore, the Metro Rail project will primarily help real estate speculators, who can conveniently and entirely capture the higher economic value created by proposed public investment. The Tamil Nadu government should tell the public how it plans to regulate and share this value in the public interest, since it will be difficult to recover the large expenditure directly and indirectly in the future. The message that emerges is that the new system will have to heavily rely on the bus, on walking paths, on parking lots for bicycles and last mile connectors to residential neighbourhoods, business areas and elder-living communities, if it is to have a meaningful rollout.
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