Solution to Delhi traffic: 'flyover'

The city is building short ramps to let cars bypass busy intersections. Traffic has improved, but for how long?

Take a megalopolis bursting with people, add to it a sudden boom in car ownership, and you have the sort of dilemma facing many city planners and engineers in the developing world these days. Delhi, however, has found a quick-fix of sorts: the flyover.

Flyovers are block-length ramps without traffic signals that allow traffic to zip up, across, and over busy intersections. Twenty new flyovers have been built in the last five years and another 16 are under construction.

If the white archways and columns of Delhi's Connaught Place symbolize the commercial aspirations of the British, the flyover marks the rise of the engineers who are rapidly modernizing this ancient city. The new structures have turned the city streets into complex whorls and loops that obscure buildings and landmarks on either side.

They've also improved traffic noticeably.

"You can reach higher speeds and arrive on time," says Snigdha Sansi, as she shopped for shoes in South Delhi, an affluent zone where many flyovers have been built.

D. Arora, a member of the Pragati Sheel Auto Rickshaw Driver's Union in Connaught Place, also felt that the traffic was somewhat better. "It's 50 percent better and 50 percent the same," says Mr. Arora, who has been driving an autorickshaw in the city for over 30 years. "In South Delhi, the red lights are gone so traffic is fine."

But experts warn that flyovers are short-sighted solutions that make the city's roads more dangerous, particularly for pedestrians. And gains made by constructing new flyovers - at a cost of approximately $4.3 to $5.8 million each - will diminish as car ownership rises.

"Any road-based improvement will soon be outlived by the number of vehicles," said Kllyat Thazhathuveetil Ravindran, dean of the city's School of Planning and Architecture. He says that the city should focus on its plans for a high-capacity bus system, which would include lanes for buses and bicyclists, separated from the rest of traffic.

Mopeds, autorickshaws, and jeeps

Getting from point A to point B in Delhi involves a complex negotiation through streets that afford the possibility of many modes of transport, from two-wheel Vespa-style mopeds, that quite often carry families of four, to noisy three-wheelers known as autorickshaws, to cars and jeeps. The only form of citywide mass transit is the bus, although the city is in the process of extending its two-line metro system, which opened in 2002.

Given the limited mass transit options, it's no surprise that those who can afford to have turned to private vehicles. The annual Economic Survey of Delhi for 2003-2004, carried out by the Delhi Planning Department, found that there are almost 1.3 million cars registered in Delhi. And the market for cars is surging with the growth of India's middle class.

Dinesh Mohan, coordinator of the Traffic Research and Injury Prevention Programme at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, has been advising the city on the bus plan, modeled on one that is already in use in Bogotá, Colombia. According to Mr. Mohan, other Asian cities like Shanghai or Jakarta have invested in flyovers and elevated expressways but still suffer from traffic jams.

"We're not really solving problems by doing this. They're terribly expensive, especially elevated expressways, and they attract traffic to that area so it's not as if they reduce traffic," says Mohan.

Although it might seem odd that the bus plan should include bicycle lanes, the design is based on the premise that any mass transport network should take stock of those who need to travel city roads the most frequently - the city's poorest.

"There's no place poor people don't go. Poor people have to go to five-star hotels, they have to go to homes, they have to go to slums," says Mohan, "So facilities for poor people - bicycles and pedestrians - have to be in every single road."

In interviews, Delhi officials said that they are working on improving public transport, including adding bicycle lanes.

But while flyover construction has proceeded at a rapid clip, public transportation improvements are moving at a much more glacial place.

Six lanes should be 24

The city planning department's economic survey has estimated that the city's ring road, currently six lanes, would have to increase in the coming years to 18 to 24 lanes. Realistically, this would only be possible with an elevated expressway given the amount of development alongside the current road.

Planning for the bus system began in 2002 but work on an experimental corridor, slated to begin last May, has been delayed.

Meanwhile, the Public Works Department appears to have plans to construct a flyover on a road that is part of the experimental stretch, creating a conflict between the two projects.

"We are trying to overcome the hurdles," said Haroon Yusuf, the city's minister for transport, adding that such projects take more time. Mr. Yusuf pointed out that planning for the metro began in the 1980s but the first train only started operating 20 years later.

As far as pedestrians are concerned, it turns out that they too will soon get flyovers of their own.

"We are constructing foot overbridges now, with escalators," said Mr. Walia, "Traffic has become so much that either we have to take the pedestrians overhead or take them underground."

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