India's Cities Risk Repeating America's Congestion Mistakes
BANGALORE, India – Fifty feet below Sankey Road, a two-lane street that hugs a small lake in northern Bangalore, lays a thin residential avenue. A line of trees hovers over it, so the hum of traffic above is barely noticeable. One night last year, another sound definitely was.
"The house started shaking and that’s when we realized," recalls an elderly resident who spoke with me through a translator. She walks me to the spot where city workers arrived unannounced to uproot the trees that shield her home from traffic noise. Then she shows me where they returned to mark, with red X’s, where the new Sankey Road would extend.
Photos by Mark Bergen
Behind her home is a trio of small temples, where locals come throughout the day to pray. Just down the road is another, larger temple. And beside that, yet another. When the new lanes arrive, each of these structures will suddenly sit right next to Sankey Road, or be uprooted as well.
This neighborhood, Malleshwaram, is known for its concentration of Hindu temples. Throughout India, it’s not unusual for religious sites to sit right next to homes and stores, intertwined with secular life. But now these sacred streets are colliding with something also sacrosanct in Bangalore: a shorter commute.
Roughly 4 million vehicles live in this city. Often, it feels as if they are all on the road at once. One recent study, from the Indian Institute of Science, claims that congestion costs the city around $3 million every day. For each resident, an hour in traffic chips away nearly a tenth of the average Bangalorean’s daily wage.
In response, the city government has coalesced around a single tactic: to ease traffic on the roads, they will add more road. Across the city, as in dozens of other Indian metropolises, official plans are underway to dig into streets like Sankey Road and widen them.
"The question really is whether it actually decongests the city," says Leo Saldanha, director of the Environmental Support Group, an advocacy organization here that has been combating the measures. "It doesn’t."
With incomes ticking up, India’s cities are now experiencing the automobile revolution the U.S. went through 60 years ago. And they may be repeating the same transit fallacies, explains Dr. Ashish Verma, the author of the IISc study and head of the Transportation Research Group of India. His work supports findings elsewhere that adding lanes does little to reduce traffic.
Some streets scheduled for widening, Verma says, were expanded just five years before. "That means there’s something wrong with the planning," he tells me.
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Despite the evidence, the city is sticking to its strategy. Last December, a regional court approved the expansion of Sankey Road, one of more than 200 planned citywide. In response, several groups of property owners have formed in opposition to widening projects. It is, in a way, India’s version of NIMBY—a cabal of relatively wealthy homeowners preventing projects in their area.
Saldanha, who is working to organize the disparate groups, tries to push back against this instinct. When homeowners alone stand against the projects, he asks, "what happens to the street vendors?"
Commuters are seen on a busy commercial street in Bangalore. Photo by Reuters
The innumerable hawkers that pepper Bangalore’s streets are often the first to be displaced. They’re also an integral part of the street life advocates are trying to preserve. "With the possible exception of the railroad, streets capture more about India than any other setting," anthropologist Arjun Appadurai wrote in "Street Culture," his 1987 essay for The India Magazine. "On its streets, India eats, works, sleeps, moves, celebrates and worships."
For those opposed to widening, the concern is whittling street life down to a single concept: India drives.
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At stake for some is the very definition of the city. Another stretch on the widening docket is Avenue Road, a historic commercial boulevard cutting through the city’s center. "You destroy Avenue Road," Saldanha says, "you destroy the soul of Bangalore."
Talk to most long-time residents here, and they’ll fondly reminisce about a time when the streets in Bangalore, still known as the "Garden City," were quieter and tree-lined. The issue has even become political. At a June press conference, where city officials announced their road expansion plans, opposition leaders ticked off the number of trees lost to recent city projects.
Last summer, when the city began removals along Sankey Road, several people were arrested in protest. The removal auction was done covertly and illegally, claims Meenakshi Bharath, a gynecologist in the neighborhood who filed a lawsuit against the expansion.
The resistance seems to be working. Of the 216 roads pegged for widening in Bangalore, only 20 construction spots have broken ground, according to city officials. In part, the public opposition is responsible. Mainly, though, the city is just too broke.
Patil, who like some Indians goes by one name, lives and works on the street next to Sankey Road. He shows me the portion set for removal in the building that is his home and his office, where he works for Communist Party of India. He believes the heavy traffic requires a fix. "They should do it in a proper way," he says of the widening, "with proper compensation."
For the time being, Sankey Road construction is stalled, wrapped up less by strong opposition than empty coffers. Residents opposed to the projects are getting an edge from the same forces keeping Bangalore from investing in other infrastructure needs.
The city cannot afford to compensate people like Patil for his property. Nor can it pay for the costly overhauls of widening, explains Bharath, the neighborhood activist. “If they did have the funding, they would go through with it,” she says.