by Ranga Rohini C
In keeping with the goal of increasing public transport usage from 41 to 70 per cent of all motorised trips, Chennai has been investing in various rapid transit projects. While much of this investment is being made in the urban core, most large-scale development is happening in peripheral areas where transit access is scarce. The result is greater dependence on private vehicles, more time spent stuck in traffic, and inefficient use of our transit resources. This begs the question: are new rapid transit lines enough to build and sustain patronage? What does it mean to have a transit-oriented city?
Our present approach to city building is decidedly car-oriented. Though only 6 per cent of trips are made by cars, we regulate building activities based on the ease of accessing a property by car. Denser development is allowed on wider roads. Trips are expected to happen on private vehicles, so development norms stipulate the minimum number of parking spaces that buildings must provide.
The existing paradigm is making the city less and less affordable. As Chennaiites become richer, per capita consumption of floor space has increased. With residential prices skyrocketing within city limits, many families are forced to shift to unserviced, peripheral areas to find lower cost housing. These areas are farther away from employment, education, and recreational opportunities.
Transit-oriented development offers a new approach to city building. This approach recognises that our city will remain in gridlock unless we ensure that new development happens in areas with good access to public transport. It also recognises that we must revitalise the core areas of our city, using redevelopment to bring improved public amenities and new life to transit-oriented neighbourhoods.
If we want to increase the supply of affordable, well-located housing, higher built densities must be allowed. Regulations must encourage the redevelopment of serviced land that is vacant or underutilised. A case in point is Ahmedabad, which permits an FSI of 4 to 5.4 along its 88 km bus rapid transit (BRT) network, as compared to an FSI of 2.7 in the rest of the city.
To ensure that new buildings support street life, urban design guidelines must be adopted to ensure “eyes on the street.” Mixed-use buildings that open directly onto the street must be encouraged. Compound walls must be prohibited to improve general street conditions and deter public urination. A fine-grained street network with small block structure must be developed to enable direct access to rapid transit stations. Regulations can ensure that private developments contribute to a better public realm in return for enjoying the benefits of higher FSI.
A common concern is that higher density will lead to more traffic. Yet traffic results from vehicles, not density. Denser development that is supported by adequate walking, cycling, and public transport networks can actually reduce the use of private vehicles in the city. Transit-oriented areas require effective management and enforcement systems to regulate the use of street space. While the Corporation of Chennai is moving toward adoption of an advanced IT-based on-street parking system, the off street parking supply also must be limited to ensure that people shift to public transport.
Providing quality services and infrastructure throughout a sprawling city can be quite challenging. With a transit-oriented approach, provision of urban services can be prioritised and service delivery optimised. Higher revenue leveraged from this increased development potential can be used to finance strengthening and upgrading of infrastructure and service delivery in the local area.
As Chennai continues to grow, it must aim to be a compact city where residents live with within a half hour commute by public transport to any major destination in the city. Transit-oriented development is not a new concept. Ideas of living and walking to work have existed and continue to exist in Indian cities. Historic cores like Mylapore continue to be a destination for residents in the city, anchored by local landmarks, commerce and vibrant street life. We need to build on these traditions and use our new rapid transit systems to shift the focus of city building to people—and away from vehicles.
This article was adapted and published in Times of India.