India’s fifth largest city, Bangalore, deserves much of the credit and attention for India’s economic transformation the past 20 years. Home to massive information technology companies including Wipro and Infosys, the Bangalore metropolitan area contributes as much as one-third of India’s IT exports. Many global companies, including SAP, have long set up shop in Bangalore. Many of the technologies that are part of the foundation of the “smart cities” movement underway worldwide have a base in Bangalore.
But as in the case of other cities throughout India, being stuck in traffic gives the feeling one is anywhere but a “smart city.” The frustration in Bangalore is nothing new. An annual report by IBM ranked Bangalore highly in its 2011 “Commuter Pain Survey.” This city of eight million was lodged between Johannesburg and New Delhi, and faring worse than other cities notorious for snarled traffic, including Buenos Aires and Los Angeles. The impacts on local quality of life are all over the map, such as when ambulances take hours to move patients only a few kilometers across town to emergency rooms. But the toll Bangalore’s traffic has on workers gives cities a lesson on why cities have got develop more robust transportation plans in a crowded world: Quartz estimates the annual cost to local IT and business process outsourcing (BPO) companies to reach as much as US$6.5 billion annually. Considering the average salary of an IT or BPO employee in India, that sum is staggering.
Much of Bangalore’s congestion woes lies in the antiquated infrastructure of what was once a military garrison. The city suffers from a low road density, much lower than that of Delhi. Bangalore also lacks the extensive commuter rail system found in Mumbai. Add the fact the city became almost twice as dense since the early 2000’s, and the state of perpetual gridlock has been a threat to Bangalore’s continued growth and success.
Bangalore’s leaders have responded to the crisis, however, and comprehensive transportation plan is in the works. A new light rail system, Namma Metro, opened its first line in 2011 and another line started running earlier this year. That leaves only one-third of the 114 kilometers (71 miles) of the network yet to be completed. Bicycling is also a more viable option in Bangalore compared to other cities in India, and has become an increasingly popular way of commuting for those desperate to beat the traffic. Many commuters in Bangalore, however, are still commuting an average of two hours daily; the ratio of commuters who use public transportation versus their own private wheels is almost 1-1. Inertia only encourages more frustrated workers to take the roads on their own.
So what does a city do when it is grappling with a crowded population in a city built to handle only a sliver of the eight million who live there now? Bangalore’s planners are betting a multi-modal transportation system can offer relief to commuters. In addition to streamlining the bus system, expanding rail, and improving the outer ring roads that start to funnel commuters into the city, additional creative ideas are on the horizon. One of them is an expanded network of escalators and “skywalks,” similar to one that opened this summer over one of the city’s busiest streets. Workers who have a walk included in their commute waste time waiting for a few safe moments to cross the streets; more subterranean passageways and skywalks should alleviate headaches for pedestrians. Of course, as one visitor observed wryly, lanes in the streets would help as well.
Other plans, such as more footpaths, bike paths and pedestrian-only zones confront the challenge that real estate in Bangalore is out of sight. In sum, the plans will cost billions—but as Quartz’s writers have noted, gridlock is costing Bangalore millions annually. The struggles Bangalore has coping with success is hardly unique to India. There’s a message for cities worldwide should be obvious—the time to launch smarter transportation planning was yesterday.
Image credit: Wikipedia (Insanity Defined)