Gridlocked in the rush to grow

August 30, 2010

Newspapers have delighted in reporting a 100km traffic jam outside Beijing could last until mid-September. Road construction is the immediate cause for the gridlock, which stretches as far as Inner Mongolia, Chinese officials have said.

Vehicles move slowly during morning rush hour in Hyderabad October 29, 2009. REUTERS/Krishnendu HalderFor Indian commuters battling a near-daily gridlock in all the big cities, this is an ominous sign of things to come.

India is adding vehicles at an unprecedented pace, with July clocking the highest car sales on record.

China has already overtaken the United States as the biggest auto market, and Indians are splashing out on cars across segments, from the humble Nano to the uber luxury Jaguar sedan.

But India, despite its stated goal of spending some $500 billion in the five years to March 2012 and double that sum over the next five-year period, has failed to build roads to keep up.

Transport Minister Kamal Nath’s promise to build 20 km of road a day is as full of holes as Mumbai’s roads in the monsoon, and plans for improving public transport have been slow off the ground.

Delhi’s Metro is a success story, but needs to cover a far greater distance before it can take the load off the congested roads.

Mumbai’s local trains are its lifeline, but they are bursting at the seams. A Metro has been slow in coming and plans to develop the waterways for the island city have been mired in political and environmental concerns. Other big cities have faced similar issues.

Still, there is a ray of hope: a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) in Ahmedabad in western Gujarat state, built and launched with minimal fanfare, has captured the imagination of even its wealthy residents, and is easing congestion gradually.

The BRTS, which transports some 60,000 people daily, aims to cover some 88 km and ferry 120,000-130,000 passengers by March 2012. Countries including Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia are studying the system, called Janmarg, or people’s way.

Indian cities are competing now to build the tallest apartments and the biggest statues; what they should be focusing on, instead, is affordable housing, public transport and sewage treatment to make them more liveable.

The McKinsey Global Institute has said India will, over the next two decades, see an urban transformation the scale and speed of which has not happened anywhere except China, with many Indian cities becoming larger than many countries today, in terms of size of population and GDP.

A cheap, efficient and scalable public transport system is essential to ensure millions are not stuck in gridlocks.

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