Director General of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the Editor of Down To Earth magazine. She is an environmentalist who pushes for changes in policies, practices and mindsets

Temporary solution, permanent jam


I write this stuck in traffic. Nothing unusual. But my location makes me realise, once again, how our highway route to progress is going nowhere. The road I am using is newly commissioned and expensive. It is the 28-km Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway, which was built just a few years ago to take care of the explosion of traffic between the two cities.

It is access-controlled, with a 32-lane toll plaza, and was to provide easy access and a fun ride. The concessionaire—built as it is under the famous public private partnership model—took all steps to keep it prized for cars. “Slow-moving” traffic like motorcycles, bicycles and even three-wheelers were banned on it.

It did not last long. Soon traffic snarled up at the toll plaza became an everyday event; commuters decried the daily nightmare and the courts stepped in to fix it. Last month, the Punjab and Haryana High Court banned the collection of toll charges for 15 days, saying it was not satisfied that all efforts were being made to make travel easier. Cars could now speed past and not wait to pay toll.

But all is not well. Cars speed past the toll and then come to a dead halt at the next junction—this is where I am stuck on my way back to office from the airport. And then it hits you how this highway is going nowhere. Every time a new expressway or a flyover is built, the point of traffic congestion just shifts; it does not disappear. Roads become a parking lot.

How do we move ahead then? In this case government agencies still think they will crawl out of the traffic mess by doing more of the same. Pushed by the judiciary, they are considering adding toll lanes to accommodate more cars. But they do not stop to think that this will not work.

In 2008, when the expressway was commissioned, roughly 0.1 million vehicles crossed the toll plaza. In just four years the number doubled. Now 0.2 million vehicles pass through the toll gates each day. More toll gates are built and more roads and flyovers commissioned. The solution is temporary but the jams are permanent.

This is the point we miss. In Delhi, an experiment for the future options has gone horribly wrong because the city failed to understand its imperative. The bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor was conceived to provide fast movement to public transport vehicles. The idea was that bus transportation needed reliability, and this needed fast track corridors to move people, not vehicles. The plan was to build 14 corridors adding up to some 200 km to make the bus transportation network a real option for commuters. This combined with the metro train system would give Delhi a scaled up alternative for mobility. But from the very start the corridor ran into trouble. Car owners hated it. They said space had been reduced for their travel. The road space left for buses was envied.

Once again, the judiciary came to the defence of the powerful. In this case, the Delhi High Court passed interim orders, destroying the corridor by allowing cars to move into spaces reserved for bicycles and buses. The report of the Central Road Research Institute (CRRI)—commissioned specially for the court—added to the frenzy against the bus corridor. More importantly, it showed just how blinkered the view of premier road planners is in the country. The institution can see roads, but not people. In the study, CRRI spoke to car owners to establish that speeds were down and concluded that the corridor was not working. It needed to go.

But what it glossed over was its own figures that show in peak hours the traffic is not better or worse on BRT than on the non-BRT road taken as a control in the study. But what is better in BRT is that many more people get moved in this road space than in the control road, Aurobindo Marg. At a crowded junction on BRT—Chirag Delhi—some 22,000 passengers cross during peak hours. On the control road at the AIIMS crossing, only 11,000 passengers cross during peak hours. In a 16-hour day, some 200,000 passengers cross this point at BRT; less than 100,000 cross the crowded junction on non-BRT. The key difference is the capacity of the road because of the way people travel. On BRT, at Chirag Delhi, some 50 per cent passengers are moved in buses; cars move 26 per cent. At the AIIMS crossing cars move 43 per cent of the passengers; buses only 31 per cent. Cars use more space; crowd the road and move far fewer people. If our educated road planners count people and not vehicles they will learn what works and what does not.

This is not to say BRT cannot work better. There is no doubt this corridor, the first of the many that were never built, can be improved. It must provide for even better access for pedestrians, spend more on buses and improvise to ease the most congested spots. But the bottom line is our cities cannot accommodate present and future car populations. Doing more of the same is not the way ahead. The only way is to find big ideas for big mobility transition.

The problem is that people do not matter in our cities; cars do. In this situation, BRT becomes the hate symbol while people waste time in traffic jams. This is not the future we seek. I hope.

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  • Ms Naraian, Even your

    Ms Naraian, Even your well-researched analysis falls short of answering why the problem doesn't seem to disappear. The real reasons are several and all interlinked with other causes:

    1. MM Singh's policies focus primarily on modernizing cities, so as rural/tribal interests are neglected, it drives more frustrated people into cities wanting a 'better' future.

    2. Cars are becoming cheaper to buy, two-wheeler accidents up, people are shelling out the bucks to go to 4-wheels.

    3. Poor city planning where the commercial/office areas are kept segregated from residential areas, forces people to jam the access roads during office hours.


    The govt. only temporarily reduces the disincentives of living in cities by providing BRT, metros, etc. that help pack more people per sq. km. But that improvement is soon washed away by more people moving from towns/villages to cities. It's an infinite loop with 1.2+ billion people, 70-80% of whom live in non-urban space.

    Solution is to spend just a fraction of the urban spending on developing smaller towns and villages so reverse migration becomes a reality.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I think it is quite clear

    I think it is quite clear that without the people getting involved, there can be no improvement in the situation and for this people have to have an alternative to the deadening, time-wasting and expensive car-borne commute. For those looking for an alternative to the car-borne commute, there is an alternative - rBus ( is trying very hard to provide a viable, stress-free alternative to private transport and bring a sanity to the daily commute.

    Currently only available in Mumbai but happy to work with partners in other cities. I am the founder of this venture and need your help and cooperation to make stress-free commutes a reality for everyone.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I entirely agree with Ms.

    I entirely agree with Ms. Sunita Narain. The only way if we really want to progress, considering the present situation we are in, is to develop good and reliable mass rapid transport systems - trains and buses - in urban centres. We should also discourage people using private vehicles and encourage using public transport.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The purpose of moving people

    The purpose of moving people is to have them reach their destinations in a timely manner. What means / resources do we have to solve this problem?
    1. Various modes of transport, all capable of travelling at different speed but having a difference in the ability to conveniently maneuvre.
    2. The human being himself / herself, with the all important two legs (greatest ability to maneuvre).
    3. (Road) Space for movement - often limited where expansion is not possible.
    4. Means of interconnection (between different modes of movement)- simply put, switching from one transport mode to another, to change direction or to reach a destination.
    5. Means of facilitating payment for switching transport modes (such as smart debit cards).
    6. Well published route plans and time tables for all public transport modes.
    7. Rational traffic movement - e.g. heavy (left lane) buses do not keep changing lanes or basic direction - if the commuter wants to change direction, he gets off and takes a connecting (different direction) public transport, using his smart card and his highly efficient two legs!
    8. Re-routing of public transport, to make it possible to avoid lane changing (and resulting obstructions to traffic)by heavy transport.
    9. Lane driving AND STRICTLY ENFORCED (WITH STIFF PENALITES) FOR IN-BETWEEN LANE DRIVING - thereby reducing accidents, enabling higher speeds in lanes, safe movement of emergency vehicles, ensuring that 3 lane traffic does not become 5-6 lanes, etc
    10. Some improvement in road use signage, with the involvement of local RWAs, so that there is smoother and accident -free traffic movement (such as STOP SIGNS, YIELD SIGNS, PARKING RESTRICTIONS, ETC ETC)

    In order to make this work you need to assemble a committed task force to put all these simple principles together into a comprehensive plan, within a defined time frame and with a known budget and to start implementing it (first in easier to implement areas)to prove that such changes do work.

    It is not required to spend too much money - plan properly, then put in changes and spend at least the minimum requirement on hardware changes / upgrades.

    These are problems with solutions, but the solutions need to be practical and based on common-sense and resource availability.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Essentially, this is mainly a

    Essentially, this is mainly a reflection on people who conceive and implement public projects. How many of us work for PWD, Municipalities or other such public bodies? None, myself included. The ones who do work there have no idea, skill, exposure, incentive (or fear)to do a good job. Easy to blame corruption/politics for it, but end of the day, its a massive skill/IQ gap and not going away anytime soon. The city model (West inspired) of development is already de-funct, but it'll be some time before we get it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Yes, the BRT, LRT, flyovers,

    Yes, the BRT, LRT, flyovers, underpasses and overpasses are all temporary solutions, proposed and implemented to provide easy access to different destinations by motorized vehicles. The roads that were built for only a few hundred vehicles have to cater for a few thousand. That is because number of cars is set to increase at an exponential rate. The governing hierarchy of all developing countries including both India and Pakistan are set to enhance the quality of life index of the people. To achieve this objective every one, if he so wishes, has to have a home with all luxuries like piped water supply, and all sorts of appliances provided, a motorized vehicle, telephones and so on. If you cannot afford it the banks are there for consumer financing. But then you have to pay the debt, which one may not be able to afford. So that is how the vicious circle of what I call ÔÇ£Social PollutionÔÇØ is set into motion. Those indulging in Social Pollution seek short cuts methods to get rich quickly. But this get-rich-quickly syndrome, as I call it, is all pervasive. It is rampant at every level ( Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, Democracy Displaced in Pakistan, Case History of Disasters of Social Pollution, 1998, Research & Development Publications, Karachi).
    The vicious circle has been set into motion by the governing hierarchies who set targets of high rates of GDP growth. For this purpose they help the industrialist to remain in production. So the car manufacturers must produce cars and the cement manufacturers must produce cement and the banks must promote consumer financing. But that is exactly where there is the trap. Every country that engages itself in this type of rat race and seeks rapid rate of growth, faces the risk of impoverishment of resources much sooner than envisaged. This has happened in Pakistan, and other weak economies which have limited resources but would like to get rich quickly (Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, Social Pollution & Global Poor Governance, 1999, Research & Development Publications, Karachi).
    So Sir, the BRT/LRT/flyover/overpass/underpass is not meant for the comfort of the common man who can hardly afford to travel in a car; it is for the promotion of the get-rich-quickly syndrome. It is for keeping the industries running and thus to achieve a high enough rate of GDP growth; never mind if it is at the cost of impoverishment of resources.

    Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg
    Former Director General PCSIR, Karachi, Pakistan

    Author of Books on Social Pollution
    1. Democracy Displaced in Pakistan, Case History of Disasters of Social Pollution, 1998, Research & Development Publications, Karachi,
    2.Social Pollution & Global Poor Governance, 1999, Research & Development Publications, Karachi

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • There are two reasons why

    There are two reasons why these solutions fail (1) there is actually very little analysis that goes into the planning of these projects. We do not use sophisticated modelling techniques that can capture these phenomenon or use Cost-Benefit Analyses (CBA). While we are happy to spend on the infrastructure, we shy away from spending on developing these planning tools. This is both because we dismiss such scientific approaches to transport and there is tendency to want to push through big projects - so analysis is ignored. Q: Has anyone looked at the Delhi-Gurgaon project analysis, how much traffic had it predicted, assumptions made, IRR etc. Why did it go wrong? (2) there is substantial evidence of the effect of "induced traffic", studied much more in the U.S and Europe, hardly at all in India. Building more road infrastructure, like a magnet, pulls in more traffic. But this must be quantified using sophisticated network analysis. This, it turns out, is not used/ignored even in the U.S and Europe. For those interested see

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Make car taxes so high, that

    Make car taxes so high, that only the super rich can afford them- like in Singapore. Improving light rail/ metro options within urban areas should ease the jams much. Anyways, we need not worry too much about car traffic as it will be around for another 15 years and then when the oil runs out or when it becomes too expensive, people will use their cars as caravans and start living in them as they cannot drive them around anymore.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • She is right. BRT can succeed

    She is right. BRT can succeed on if there are a large number of public vehicles say buses are made available. the buses shd ply almost as a chain like train compartments. Only then the reservation of scarce road surface for buses can be justified.

    People can give up, costly and time consuming cars, only when the buses are available in plenty and when they can help them reaching faster. We should see that there is no long waiting for buses, there is no obstruction in their passages.

    Dr G L Moondra

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I do not completely agree

    I do not completely agree with Ms Narain. We have to look at the situation more realistically. It is sometimes fashionable to advance our socialistic agenda to blame the elite and pressure groups. Let me talk of both the projects referred.

    The Gurgaon toll was mismanaged from the start and even when the traffic was building up, neither the concessionaire or National Highway Authority did not care to improve and modernize toll collection and messed up the situation. Let us not run down the concept of toll roads but emphasize on shoddy implementation.

    The BRT was a disaster right from the start. It was ill-conceived and badly designed. There was no provision for movement of pedestrians, zero safety measures, too little room for thousands of cars that pass-by and created a mess around red light crossings. While it is essential to have a good Mass Rapid Transport system, such ill-conceived, half-baked projects waste public money and cause terrific inconvenience.

    The Metro on the other hand is a success and people want more of it. Some lessons to be learnt here.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Cars older than 15 or 20

    Cars older than 15 or 20 years should be banned in Delhi with immediate effect, to save Delhi.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The Sri Lankan transport

    The Sri Lankan transport expert, the late John Diandas, once categorically told me that widening roads does not help problems with road congestion. More cars pile onto them. One problem with Sri Lanka is allowing the import of used vehicles from other countries. I have been told by one worthy that this allows poor people to own a car! An efficiently operated electric mass transit system would probably help a lot.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with Ms. Narain

    I agree with Ms. Narain assesment. There is plenty of evidence worldwide that there is no way to build your path out of congestion. Is the same than solving obesity by expanding the size of your pants: more room to grow your belly. It is counterintiutive, but factual: more capaoity creates opportunity for more traffic, and at the end you are worse than where you started.
    Mobility solutions include city planning (making trips shorter by locating activities close through mix use, good density, accesible developments), provision of several alternatives to car use (walking, biking, buses, and other forms of mass transit), pricing car use according to the externalities it causes (congestion, pollution), and improving traffic management.
    You may need to build some roads, but it is wise to dedicate most of the right of way of these roads to non motorized travel and buses, so they move more people, not more cars.
    Regarding the Delhi bus corridor, it is good to have it, but needs many improvements. As Ms. Narain said some time ago: it is a corridor in evolution. It can evolve, if it exists, and it seems some of the judges looking at it are starting to think in the majority of bus and bicycle commuters, not in the minority of car users.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Inverted logic of Indian road

    Inverted logic of Indian road users:
    Has any expert done a study on the most important link in the whole mess obtaining on roads?
    We can and should build the world class infrastructure that we deserve. But who will build the social character of the users for whom this is being built?
    No matter how good is the infra if we do not change our mindsets nothing will actually change. Examples:
    1.On any crossing- no one stops at the STOP line.Everyone is hogging the zebra and beyond.
    2.On a 3 lane, there are- 3 cars, 1 bus, several MC/ scooter, 1 tractor, assorted cycles/ rickshaws.
    3.We are experts in finding that 3 seconds opportunity- when the one side lights go amber and the other is still red, whole buses/ tractors jump the lights as a routine.
    4. Traffic bubbles were created to smoothen movement. Now everybody uses them to take shortcuts in opposite direction, DANGEROUSLY.
    5. It is routine to see traffic in the wrong direction/ including police jeeps, on highways.
    6. Slow moving traffic like trucks/ tractors use the innermost lane next to the divider, changing the entire usage pattern. cars have to overtake from the left which is suicidal in a country with right hand drive.

    So, please tell me who- besides God is ensuring safety of the citizen?
    Please mark that i have omitted the plight of the pedestrian, since all pavements are invariably encroached.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • One or two solutions will

    One or two solutions will remain inadequate. We need to, in addition to MRTSs, for instance make serious and sustained civil society efforts to get RWA residents to share cars; lobby for cycle / rickshaw paths where feasible; improve and enforce pedestrian paths; get car entry into cities and its congested areas taxed; invest more in urban railways / metros with large parking areas at their stations; allot govt housing to those working nearby; get one ministry under one roof; restrict entitlement to official cars; and perhaps many other things.

    And all this applies to most cities in India today and certainly tomorrow.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita, Very well

    Dear Sunita,

    Very well thought of article and for a change you focussed on 30% of the people who live in cities.

    We the 30% are biggest consumers, polluters and resource hoggers and good that you have started focussing on us as well.

    However, you have run short of suggesting a way out of the mess and that is what our planners are also doing in their meeting and board rooms. Nobody has a holistic view and an idea of how to get out of this mess.

    It calls for a next round of coverage of the subject matter with some clear directions for the planners to notice.

    I would request you to consider the following:

    - Simplified approach with optimum impact of taxpayer's money.
    - Integrated traffic management
    - Optimum use of petroleum
    - Commuting time benchmarks

    It is atrocious to find that so much of bitumen is used every year to build and repair the roads that last only till the next monsoon. It only benefits the pockets of a few and so does the building of flyovers like Rao Tula Ram Marg with no public sense.

    Actually all projects in this country are built with 'what is in it for me' attitude. The planners cannot see beyond vested interest. Kindly enlighten them and if not at least enlighten the public.

    Kind Regards

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • our planners always plan for

    our planners always plan for the privileged few. Wherever toll roads have been built or expressways are built, the talk is always about the cars and automobiles. nobody sees the difficulties of people and livestock which has stopped crossing the roads fearing a hit by the ever speeding automobiles. cant our planners plan for pedestrian crossins also as a part of expressways to allow the common man to lead his life?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Ms.Narain! I lived for a

    I lived for a while in Gurgaon. I too did the driving & all that after my retirement, driving my wife to her school at INA area where she used to teach. It is the worst experience for someone driving a car, his own car.
    It is a pity that only this road is there to connect Gurgaon with Delhi. I hope the Metro helped matters partly at least by now.
    The problem is only a part of a huge problem that needs to be tackled in a holistic manner. Every section of population who get up in the morning to commute & return home after dusk is one part of the problem. Everyone's need to commute must be addressed so that there is no need to travel everyday 30km, one way, with a demeanour far from serene. There can be a seminar (may be there were already). Unnecessary commuting should be reduced to the bare minimum.
    As a first step primary school children should be provided adequately equipped decent schools within walking distance from their homes, without the need to cross a major street even. In Delhi this is einently doable. Call them neighbourhood schools. Many of the children don't measure up to the tyre height of their school bus, that needs to be totally dispensed with. Curbing this freedom, for commuting to school, is a societal imperative. I've seen some gruesome school bus accidents that could have been totally avoided.
    Gurgaon has become a magnet for commuting office goers of Delhi as accomodation is unaffordable (unless one is a presswala/i). I enjoyed living in govt. accomodation in Andrews gunj, that my children took for granted. But then i had to shift to Gurgaon.
    There are many such scenarios that one can sectonalise & address the proble to seek remedies.
    Another if I may add - in earlier decades (I came to Delhi first in 1970) roads were robust easily lasting many Monsoons, now they last one. This is the picture after CRRI came up on Ring Road near Friends' colony. What happened to road quality, I wonder.
    Thanks for your article. I'd be happy to participate in your efforts.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • "too little room for

    "too little room for thousands of cars"?!! Pray, how much room would you say is needed? Six lanes? Seven? Ten? Would that guarantee free flowing traffic? How would you cross such a road? What will happen to the air pollution?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunitaji 1. There is no

    Dear Sunitaji
    1. There is no solution if we do not limit the growth of our cities. Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata etc must stop growing and that means very different developmental priorities. Rural centric, agro centric ... a lot more can be said. This, given the political and economical drivers appears difficulty.

    2.That building a 6 lane highways do not improve has been amply demonstrated in the case on London highway, I have seen a video of it.

    3.It would be nice if we could take more techinical approach of using simulations methods to demonstrate to courts that Bus system is much better! Highly reliable traffic simulation models are available. Do not trust those road institutes at all!

    D G Kanhere

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The Editorial rightly points

    The Editorial rightly points out the defects in our system. There are various suggestions for easing the situation. One is going on i.e. adding more booths. It will help to some extent.

    I have two suggestions in this regard:

    1. At present very few people use TAG. Reason is that there is no monetary benefit. If the TAG holders have to pay two-three rupees less in each trip, lot of people will go for TAG. It will make the movement faster.

    2. Presently, the charge for cars is 21/- rupees per trip which is cumbersome. People do not have one rupee coins. The booth attendants have to give back nine rupees to almost every driver . It takes time. The charge should be 20/- rupees. Then things will move fast. If it is to be increased, it should be made 25/- may be after two years or so to compensate for inflation etc.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The 'Urban Planning' aspect

    The 'Urban Planning' aspect in India needs a paradigm shift - but the shift is happening for the worst. The city transport is like egg-hen situation - I mean we don't know what is worst. To use car is worst or to try public transport like bus is worst? Because the public transport is worst, people tend to travel by car - and it makes public transport worst again!

    Unless the vehicle industry stops influencing those who are in power - I guess public transport would never improve. Delhi Metro is still an exception - I must add.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The BRT in Delhi didn't

    The BRT in Delhi didn't succeed because even earlier the selected route was a car concentrated route. People will shift or atleast get attracted to public transport if and only if it is efficient prompt and moderately comfortable.
    But the DTC is notorious for poor transportation methods and bad maintenance. I have seen buses running on Delhi roads of same route (Ex: 502) in which 2 or 3 buses coming one behind another. The result will be that the third bus will be almost empty. While people wanting to go to other destinations have to wait wasting their precious time. This is my impression while waiting for public transport in Delhi as I do not own a vehicle.
    So unless the public transporter agency runs their fleet efficiently by deploying buses on wide range of routes and sufficient frequency, BRT/LRT or any other RT is bound to fail.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The niggling question is

    The niggling question is always how to wean the car users to use buses. Bangalore has shown the way. I could not gage the popularity of the Volvo services till the day of the bundh day in September when all public transport kept off roads protesting the diesel price hike. The road from my office to home was really clogged in the evening since everyone had brought out their cars/two-wheelers or hired a rickshaw to get back home. Other days these buses keeps thousands of cars off the roads.

    People who're all too proud to take a bus otherwise happily get into a Volvo since air conditioned buses suits their status. Rush in Volvos in peak hours is huge and it's actually more of a discomfort than normal buses but still people prefer to travel in them than in non A/c buses.

    There's no substitute for a transparent and efficient bus service corporation. They've managed to create this in Bangalore/Karnataka due to the political will of the party in power in 1997.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I think, we really need to

    I think, we really need to think WHAT DEVELOPMENT IS? is it only ROAD AND CARS(AUTOMOBILE SECTOR) to much is given to this sector, if this is the way we go there is no end to this.

    My suggestion is Government need to implement rationing of diesel and petrol, like LPG. Luxury should be at a higher price, automatically user of car will reduce.In turn concentrate on improving Public transport system.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
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