Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Dec 19, 2020
Modern street planning does not stop at technical designing.
Delhi’s efforts to build roads on the lines of European cities It appears that the Chief Minister of Delhi is enamoured by the quality of the roads in European cities and wishes that Delhi should emulate them on certain road stretches in his city state. Recently, he gave instructions to the Public Works Department (PWD) to undertake a pilot project to redesign seven identified roads along the lines of European cities. He also directed the PWD officials to remove all obstacles that stood in the way of the pilot project. He informed that the process of appointing a consultant for redesigning roads is in the final stages and the PWD should complete the appointment process soon. The project that was tested out on a small stretch of road in Chandni Chowk will follow the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model. The company that will be awarded the project will be charged with the responsibility of maintaining the roads for 15 years. While the project was approved in November 2019 and should have started by now, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a postponement. The deadline for redesigning has now been extended till August 2021. The seven roads comprise a total stretch of 500 kms with a uniform width of 100 feet. As per the plan, the slope as well as the drains will be redesigned to tackle the problem of water-logging. Rainwater harvesting structures will be built inside the drainage systems to store rainwater as groundwater. The PWD intends to rid the roads of dust. “Not even an inch of the surface of any road or roadside will be left uncovered in order to ensure that there is no dust on the roads. Adequate grasses and shrubs will be planted on all surfaces to ensure dust control,” the PWD asserted.

European-style roads in Indian cities may be a seriously tough exercise.

A significant fact that one must keep in mind about roads is that they are the most expensive item of urban infrastructure. Because of their universal and multiple use, they are also about the most complicated to design. Furthermore, in Indian conditions, on account of their rough usage, they are the most difficult to maintain. For all such reasons, our city roads are built and rebuilt and their retrofitting appears an endless exercise. European-style roads in Indian cities, therefore, may be a seriously tough exercise. To begin with, in the planning process of cities, the scientific layout of roads and road widths are compromised and pressures are brought to bear on the process to narrow their width, delete stretches or find alternate alignments to avoid the demolition of certain ‘powerful properties.’ These compromises later come to haunt cities as rising traffic gets increasingly impeded by bottlenecks. Delhi is no exception. Hence, before the road construction begins, land stretches that would allow a 100 feet-wide road in all of the 500 kms would have to become public property. Structures standing on them would have to be demolished. Questions of rehabilitation may also arise. This is a difficulty that the Delhi government is aware of. “People face issues because there are bottleneck roads, which create the problem of traffic congestion at various locations in the city. The wide roads in many parts of Delhi sometimes turn into a narrow road, and then back into a wide road after a few km, which creates a bottleneck situation and heavy traffic at particular locations. The priority will be removing those bottlenecks first, for a smooth flow of traffic and an organised lane system,” the government said in a statement. However, this is easier said than done. Bottlenecks invariably turn political and some of them are bound to land up in long-drawn out court battles. Fortunately, Delhi has allocated more land space to roads than most Indian cities have done in their spatial planning.

Bottlenecks invariably turn political and some of them are bound to land up in long-drawn out court battles.

It also needs to be appreciated that roads comprise footpaths, cycle-tracks and storm water drains. They get used for parking, passenger pick-ups and drops, loading and unloading goods, bus stops, taxi and auto-rickshaw stands, solid waste containers and public toilets. Modern concepts of inclusivity require several other considerations in the design of roads. As the state government has clarified, “There will be measured and planned spaces for vehicles, non-motorised vehicles, footpaths, and side-lanes. The footpaths will be widely mapped to an average of 10 feet for the convenience of the pedestrians. These footpaths will be redesigned and reconstructed as per a standard height for the convenience of the physically handicapped.” However, the synchronisation of so many services is a highly challenging exercise and very high levels of design skills are required. Roads also contribute to the aesthetics of a city and this has partly been taken into account by the Delhi PWD. More greenery is contemplated. Separate spaces are planned for the planting of trees on the sides of the footpaths. There will be separate parking spaces for electric vehicles and auto-rickshaws alongside the footpaths. Additionally, the exercise will call for the design of street lights and space and design for advertisements and hoardings. In the search for inclusivity, the Government of India also passed the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014. While the Act empowered local governments to regulate street vending and declare ‘no vending zones,’ it also mandated that 2.5 percent of city population could be street vendors who would have to be provided vending space. By the very name of the Act, streets are places where vending can happen. Any future road design, therefore, must perforce take this statutorily mandated position into account in designing any future city roads.

It is in the nature of BOTs that the private company would be expected to raise revenues from the project. It is not clear what those revenue sources are.

Indian roads must also consider the various services that lie along and under city roads. These comprise water services, sewer lines, electricity cables, domestic gas lines and internet cables. These need to be designed to allow conveyance of these services on either side of the road so as to prevent any interim road-digging activity. This is a problem that all Indian cities have faced. Newly surfaced roads get dug up and have to be patched up to make them motorable. But the digging is best avoided as it destroys the quality and longevity of roads. Since the project is to be undertaken on a BOT format, it is in the nature of BOTs that the private company would be expected to raise revenues from the project. It is not clear what those revenue sources are, especially since a 15-year-maintenance would also be the company’s responsibility. Given the various components of road works planned, the project is likely to be in the region of INR 20,000 crore. Such an amount cannot be raised by a private company unless the project is packaged with other cross-subsidising ventures. Modern street planning does not stop at technical designing. Streets are now viewed not merely as movement channels forming part of the road network with vehicle dominance. Other modes of traffic such as pedestrian and bicycle journeys are equally significant and must find weightage in design concepts. At the same time, they are also community spaces for shopping, talking, waiting, relaxing and meeting friends. That is why in European cities, there are abundant spaces where restaurants can use footpaths and road spaces to put their tables where people can sit and have coffee. Given the rising demographic density of Delhi, destined in the estimation of some to become the largest city in the world, such European road features may be difficult to emulate. However, the efforts of Delhi to add greater quality and aesthetics to roads ought to be appreciated. Cities would keenly watch the outcome of the exercise.
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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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