Along for the Ride #137
Chennai’s attempt at creating a Unified Transport Authority needs a gigantic push by Megha Kaveri
If established the right way, Chennai is looking to emulate cities like Geneva in creating a single transport authority which is aimed at helping in logical and sustainable transport planning and infrastructure.
I am Megha Kaveri, a journalist and a Masters student, from India. I worked as a Reporter at The News Minute, an English news website in India for three years where I wrote about education, health, environment and public transport. Currently, I am pursuing my Master in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute, Geneva where I am specialising in Cities, Mobilities and Spaces and Global Health. I love exploring places on public transport and am an advocate for increasing pedestrian facilities and non-motorised transport in Indian cities.
In 2011, the government of Tamil Nadu (India), passed a bill that was supposed to revolutionise the public transport system in Chennai. The bill, which came to be known as the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) Act, was intended to establish a single-point authority to plan and structure the city’s famed multimodal public transport system. However, 10 years later, the legislation largely remains on paper and is yet to begin actual work on the ground. In fact, the Authority is yet to hold a single meeting after its establishment.
The capital city of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is one of the metropolitan cities in India and has a population of around 10 million living in an area of around 160 square miles. The city enjoys, perhaps, one of the best public transport systems in the country. It is served by a fleet of buses owned and operated by the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC), two lines of metro rail owned and operated by the Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) and at least four lines of suburban and Metro Rapid Transit System railway lines that are owned and operated by Southern Railway. Of these, the MTC and CMRL are completely under the control of the government of Tamil Nadu, while Southern Railway is under Government of India. All these transport agencies have their own governing structures and work independent of each other.
Apart from these agencies, Chennai’s land and infrastructure, including planning, are governed by different agencies like the Greater Chennai Corporation, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, and the National Highways Authority of India which don’t overlap with any of the above mentioned transport agencies. These departments are responsible for city planning and infrastructure development like thinking about roads, flyovers and alignment of railway lines to name a few.
Now, the goal of CUMTA was to serve as a coordinating authority between these agencies and make public transport seamless in terms of operation and infrastructure. For example, if the CUMTA was to work, it would mean that all these agencies would have to collaborate on planning roads, traffic intersections, bus and metro stops and likewise to extract maximum benefit out of the rare resource that is land. This would also mean that decongestion of the city would be on the top of the agenda. However, the reality is far from the goal.
Chennai suffers from traffic pain-points, like any other city. Despite its wide public transport network, it still has issues providing last-mile connectivity. Having a unified planning agency early on should have addressed these issues as and when newer transport systems came into picture. While being a failure at this, CUMTA is yet to take off in reality, making things complicated as we look into the future. One of the main issues that might be affecting the ignition of CUMTA is the need for several agencies to come together for a single cause. On the one hand, few insiders say that it is a tough ask since it would mean that the agencies, which enjoyed autonomy in decision making so far, will have to let go of that power. However, many others are pragmatic enough to say that ‘good things take time’ and that ‘CUMTA is designed to have representatives from all these transport and planning agencies and hence it is not an issue of losing power’. The truth is anybody’s guess.
The hope now is that a push from the World Bank, which has agreed to pump in around $150 million to transform Chennai into a world-class city in line with the vision of the government of Tamil Nadu, will help get CUMTA up and running. In a story published in November 2021 by Citizen Matters, Korah Abraham writes, “One of the objectives of the Chennai City Partnership (CCP) programme of the World Bank is to establish and strengthen the CUMTA as the key coordinating agency for the delivery of urban mobility services across providers of bus, metro, rail, road, and pedestrian services and infrastructure.” At this juncture one can only hope this push works.
Chennai has the capacity to take maximum advantage of its urban mobility systems because of the sheer connectivity. If implemented, I envision it to be something on the lines of Geneva’s public transport system (Unireso) which has a single ticket (Valid for 60-90 minutes) to hop on and off of any mode of transport (Tram, bus and boat). The roads are also planned in such a way that trams and buses co-exist and complement each other in terms of areas serviced.
However, it is difficult to implement a single-ticketing system in Chennai’s public transport network in my opinion. One of the main reasons for my skepticism is that Chennai’s transport systems are used by people from different strata of the society. For example, the suburban and MRTS trains are the cheapest modes of transport, closely followed by MTC buses. These two modes are, therefore, used by a majority of the working class living within and outside the city’s periphery. The metro service’s tickets start at Rs 10 and quickly increase up till Rs 50, which pushes the belief that it is primarily designed for those in corporate, well-paying jobs or those in the upper echelons of the economic ladder. With this fare disparity on the ground, it is tough to design an ideal pricing mechanism and methods to collect it from the users.
Another issue is that of last-mile connectivity. At present, public transport users are still dependent on auto rickshaws and private vehicles to reach home from the train/metro stations and bus stops. This will barely solve the issues of traffic congestion and carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Though there are Smart bike stands across the city, more awareness is needed along with an increase in resources. With a dense population and many people living in suburban areas, it is crucial to amp up the network connectivity in order to enable the users to extract the maximum benefit out of the money they pay to travel on public transport. However, Chennai lacks on this front and it would require a whole-hearted effort from the various planning agencies and stakeholders to address the problem.
The problem with Chennai, hence, is not of it being impossible. It is very much possible to leverage the existing network and build on it to improve the utility. However, doing that will take a great amount of political will and attitude. It remains to be seen if the state government is up to the challenge. More about the background and the models Chennai is trying to emulate can be read here.
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As a reminder if you’re interested in guest contributing, I have a short write-up about what it entails here. Feel free to give it a read and reach out to me if enticed :)
Have a beautiful weekend friends.
Megha + Sarah