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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 5, june 16-30, 2009
A need to learn
from the Delhi Metro
(By a Special Correspondent)

Reacting to our story on the Metro and St. Andrew’s Kirk (MM, June 1st ), TARA MURALI asks: What will be the impact of the Chennai Metro Rail Project on the city? Will the Metro Rail project be built to suit the city or will the city have to alter itself painfully over time to suit the Metro Rail? Will commuters and citizens, literally and metaphorically, have to pay the price of the CMR project? She goes on to write:

All metropolises of developing countries seem to aspire to having a Metro Rail. Apart from its benefits in quick transportation of people, it is sold as “a seductive image of development”. Professor K.T. Ravindran, designer and currently chairman of the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), was recently in Chennai and gave an informal talk to planners from CMDA and a few Chennai architects. He warned that the Metro Rail – efficient as it is in transporting people – came with a cost, a cost that is often not recognised or acted upon in time. However, the gigantic investment on the Metro Rail, if linked ­judiciously with other development aspects, could be a tool and catalyst to enhance the economic and qualitative growth of the city.

Much of his assessment was based on the much praised Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) and its impact on land planning issues of Delhi, which the DUAC has had to assess, being the only legal framework available to check and balance that Corporation. Lessons could be learnt from the DMRC and problematic areas should be understood and resolved by the CMR planners before plans and details are finalised, said Prof. Ravindran. Failure to do so would have severe negative ­impacts on the city and contentious issues would arise that would be almost insurmountable to solve post-construction.

The logic of the Metro Rail does not seamlessly fit into the logic of the existing city or the logic of the development plans as drawn up by the planning authorities. It is, therefore, of prime importance that the planning agencies and local bodies are involved right from the start and work along with the Metro Rail planners to bring about a comprehensive solution that would benefit both commuters and residents of the city.

Citizens along with planners should understand the technology of the Metro Rail, understand its links and impact on city planning issues, and must devise, pre-construction, a legal framework that could effectively guide and mediate ­between the needs of the Metro Rail and other issues of the city and more specifically the neighbour­hoods through which it passes. This legal framework should have the power to ­intercede and arbitrate in the areas of interface between the city and the Metro Rail. Where the Metro Rail is likely to be overhead, its jurisdiction should include the visual impact on the city’s existing urbanscape. The legal framework would ideally be administered by a healthy mix of the metropolitan plan­ning agency, local bodies and knowledgeable citizens (archi­tects, planners, ­eco­nomists, ­sociologists and NGOs).

Metro Rail projects are designed to suit the technology of the specific transport system. For example, stations have to be ­located every one kilometre and station lengths have to be co-­related to the length of the trains. They require humungous uninterrupted power supply without which they cannot run and the city must find this additional load without affecting its routine ­electric supply. Land on which the exclusive substations etc. can be located must also be identified.

Prof. Ravindran cautioned the public against being complacent about decisions regarding routing under the impression that they are taken purely on technical grounds. Political gestures and the influence of lobbies often play their role in decision-making. He gave the example of the Delhi Metro being forced to go over the Ridge, an ecologically important Reserved Forest area, instead of its original and logical route through Chanakyapuri. Not only was there severe negative environmental impact, but there was also the appalling fact that there were no commuters to be serviced in this stretch of alignment!

The Metro Rail does serve a much required need of integrating the periphery to the metropolitan centre/s, but it will be really cost-effective only if it is integrated with a well-thought-out inter-modal connectivity. Priori­ti­sation of linking the Metro Rail with efficient bus transport and cycle and pedestrian paths will alone make it a viable transport mode for the poorer sections, including hawkers bringing their goods from the peripheral areas to city centres.

The old suburban trains have vendors’ compartments. Will the new Metro Rail have them or are the enterprising among the economically weaker sections, including hawkers, to be relegated to using slower, more inefficient travel modes?

This inter-modal linkage is also critical to reduce the number of automobiles on the roads as, otherwise, large tracts of land will have to be provided for parking private vehicles adjacent to stations. Negotiations with local bodies to effect these connections must be done even as details of the project are worked out.

Another area that deserves careful consideration is the interface between station and street. Often the terms of reference for design given to the Metro planners stop at the boundary of the street and these points of interface become nobody’s responsibility. However, the impact is the greatest at this point where there is movement of large numbers of people and vehicles. This impact on residential and even commercial establishments in the immediate vicinity is great and needs to be carefully integrated to reduce negative consequences.

Another neglected aspect of the Metro Rail is its non-specific approach to heritage areas and precincts. Prof. Ravindran spoke of the tough negotiations by the DUAC, INTACH (Indian ­National Trust for Art and ­Cultural Heritage) and others with the DMRC in the Kutb Minar area where the Metro Rail was passing close to several heritage monuments that are to be found there. He also spoke of the need to draw up strict regulations to protect heritage buildings and monuments from impacts during construction of both overhead and underground sections.

Should the stations have one recognisable branded character or should they blend with the context and the architectural character of the area? Architectural character of the station designs themselves is an issue when they are located in visually sensitive areas. Often station designers, to enhance the appearance of ‘modernity’, employ excessive glass in buildings. This if followed in a hot climate like that of Chennai will only increase energy consumption and, in the eyes of the discerning public and environmentalists, create visual pollution.

Commuter tickets pay just a miniscule cost of recovery for the huge investment on Metro Rails. All over the world they are subsidised by governments. DMRC has embarked on real estate development projects in the immediate vicinity of stations and routes in an effort to raise revenue. These were neither predetermined in the DMRC’s original plans nor do they find a place in the Master Plan of Delhi. Worse, they contradict the direction and vision of the Delhi Master Plan. The Metropolitan Development Authority and the local bodies need to assert themselves and play a pro-active role right from the start to ensure that the land use under Metro Rail Corpora­tion cost recovery sche­mes is not in contradiction to the Master Plan and the Detailed Development Plans.

Unpleasant surprises may also be sprung up on the city by the Metro Rail projects. These are the “back room” land areas required – depots for parking and cleaning the coaches with their demand on water and resultant waste, the land required for the huge electric substations, etc. The Metro Rail Corporation must clearly enumerate how much and where these will be located and obtain environment impact assessment (EIA) clearances for any resultant pollution and waste treatment.

Several other issues were also highlighted – such as the misuse of the large concrete walls of the stations when they meet the street, changed building regulations likely in the vicinity of the rail routes, impact on privacy of existing buildings, and the need for redevelopment plans for the immediate areas surrounding the stations. Prof. Ravindran ­con­cluded his interaction reiterating the urgent need for Chennai to set up a legal framework for planning agencies and city utilities to work with the CMRL.

It is imperative that the citizens of Chennai learn lessons good and bad from Delhi. ­Otherwise the Chennai Metro Rail is likely to go the way of our MRTS – which has taken its toll on the city while contributing so little to it.


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