An eightfold path to improving urban traffic

There are quick an inexpensive ways to improve traffic flows in our cities

This is a version of an op-ed that appeared in the Bangalore edition of today’s Times of India:
We can approach a solution to the vexed problem of road traffic if we pay attention to one simple concept: flow. It is distressing to see so much of the public debate, civil society angst and government policy follow various red herrings. One the one hand policymakers blame lack of funds, and it is true that the municipal corporation’s entire annual budget is smaller than what is required to upgrade the road network to modern standards. On the other, citizens blame the pyramid of corruption that brazenly siphons off even what little funds are allocated for the purpose. There are also issues of masterplanning, infrastructure design and maintenance.

While there are degrees of truth in all these arguments, what seems to be lost is that conceptually, the problem of traffic is a problem of flow. While more money, less corruption, more infrastructure and better design are indeed medium-term and long-term solutions, they are complex and unlikely to be easily addressed in the churn of India’s democratic politics. Even so, we must push forward on them. However, in the meantime, if we focus on improving flows we can enjoy some respite from the tyranny of traffic almost immediately.

Here is an Eight Fold Path to improving traffic in the short term, without requiring to spends massive amounts of money.

First, and most important, focus on the flow. Do not get mesmerised by road-widening projects that are not only messy but might not improve the situation. Unless a road is of uniform width throughout its length, flow is unlikely to improve much by widening. In fact, uneven road width causes congestion and can actually worsen the situation. Do not widen a road unless you can widen it along its entire length.

Second, remove road cholesterol. In many places almost 40% of the road is unusable because, like clogged arteries, circulation of traffic is choked by various blockages. Potholes, construction materials, parked cars, auto rickshaw stands and street vendors interrupt traffic flow and not only cause congestion points but also endanger safety of motorists and pedestrians. No, this does not mean banning these legitimate activities. Rather, it means regulating them to minimise the impact on traffic flow. Make it compulsory for construction material and debris to be placed in bins, with a fee charged for occupying road space. Make parallel parking compulsory, draw parking lots and assign a serial number to each of them. Move auto-rickshaw stands away from street intersections. Similarly, ensure street vendors occupy designated lots.

Third, get cows and other animals off the road. It should be astounding that a city that connects India to the global economy, and one that suffers so much traffic congestion, tolerates herds of cows on its major roads. Cows might be holy but that does not prevent them from causing congestion and endangering their own lives and the lives of motorists.

Fourth, make all lanes of uniform width. Today, lanes are mostly not marked, and where they are marked, they bisect the available road width. The lack of lane markings and lanes of varying widths create no behavioural triggers for people to drive in a disciplined manner. Lane markings should always be clearly visible and not left to drivers’ imaginations.

Fifth, enforce queuing for right turns. One of the biggest reasons for congestions on major roads is that when vehicles wait to turn right, they do not queue up one behind the other. Instead, they line up side-by-side in an right-turning arc. What this means is that all the vehicles that intend to go straight ahead or turn left are blocked. It doesn’t matter how wide the road is, if right-turning vehicles do not queue up. Barricades can be placed to create a right-turn queue to create this driving behaviour norm.

Sixth, there have to be a lot more directional signs on our roads. Overhead gantries identifying lanes for left, right and straight ahead are necessary. These must be placed well-ahead of the intersection so that vehicles can change lanes much before the intersection.

Seventh, the stop line at intersections must be prominent. Right now its exact position is left to the imagination and discretion of drivers. This makes it impossible for pedestrians to cross safely or other traffic to pass across the junction. The stop line must be a lakshman rekha crossing which should attract severe penalties. Cameras already exist that can enforce this easily.

Eighth, movement of heavy vehicles and tractor-trailors cannot be unrestricted as it is now. Slow moving vehicles such as these not only slow down traffic but also create incentives for illegal and dangerous overtaking by other motorists. If they cannot be limited to certain corridors and certain times, then they must be compelled to move only in the left-most lane. Again, camera footage can be used for penalising offenders without burdening on-ground police personnel.

Finally, although pedestrians ought to have the first right on the road, they are constantly robbed of their safety and dignity. Traffic lights for pedestrian crossings seem to have been designed for Olympic sprinters, as it is almost impossible to cross even a mid-sized road in the ten seconds that are allocated for the purpose. Skybridges and underpasses are impractical if they have steep staircases or are located at unnatural crossing points. At times where traffic lights are sought to be synchronised to create “green channels” and smooth traffic flows, the pedestrian’s rights must not be sacrificed. Give them more time to cross the road; and dissuade them from crossing where they shouldn’t.