Tuesday, October 30, 2007

International Airport Rail Link: Alternate Alignment

Deccan Herald and The Hindu recently reported on a presentation/lecture by S N Venkata Rao, advisor and project director, Delhi Metro Rail Corporate about the proposed ‘High speed rail link from city centre to new international airport at Bangalore (Devanahalli)’ .

DMRC Proposal
The proposed route would probably look like this (my educated guess since the map in newspaper was not of a fine granularity).

View Larger Map

The starting station would be built on the Police Grounds, adjacent to Chinnaswamy Circket Stadium. It's not clear whether it would pass by the Raj Bhavan or circumvent that, but further on it would probably go along Sankey Road, passing by Bangalore Golf Club, the Windsor Manor and Palace Grounds to Mekhri Circle, further on toward the Hebbal Flyover and continue on along Bellary Road towards the Airport. Given DMRC preference of late, it is proabable that the entire route will be elevated.
There would be limited stops at Hebbal and Yellahanka.

So what's the problem ?!
A rail link to the new airport is an absolute must-have. The devil, as always, is in the detail.

Problem 1.
The location of the starting station or 'city air terminal' is the Police Ground between MG and Cubbon Road. I have a huge problem with that. This will be the loss of one more of our precious and fast disappearing open spaces. Moreover, this is among the few playing areas in the heart of the city which are still accessible to the members of the public, as witnessed by usual early morning cricket games. You can't play in Cubbon Park, and definitely not in Chinnaswamy Stadium unless you are in the cricketing elite.
It is not clear how much of the ground will be lost, but with a large canvas available, the plans are likely to be elaborate. If we don't speak up now, this one is a goner.
BMRC has a large and better situated plot at their disposal a mere frisbee toss away. The Plaza theatre is beautifully situated on MG Road, has a reasonably large plot size, plus additional access to Church Street at the back. It is to serve as station on the Line 1, but is clearly an overkill for such a limited purpose. Integrating the starting point of the airport link into Plaza will better utilize this property. Moreover, it will seamlessly integrate the Airport Link with the rest of the Metro network. Potentially, a traveler (with limited luggage) could board the Metro at any point between Mysore Road and Old Madras, get off at Plaza, go down a level and catch the airport train. The Police Ground plan introduces a small but inconvenient gap between the two lines, which will force people to walk or take a rick to bridge the gap, adversely affecting ridership.

Problem 2
This alignment is the exact same road most of Bangalore is going to take to get to the new Airport. It is already a high traffic corridor, barely 2 lanes in either direction most of the way, and is likely to turn nightmarish come April 08 when Devenahalli is functional. Now imagine that to add to this situation, you start construction along the median, taking out a lane on either side, probably more if we go by the experience of current construction on MG Road. I agree that it is short term pain for long term benefit, but we are talking about 18 months to 2 years here.

Problem 3:
Significant land acquisition required for widening the road before construction can even start would affect the tree rich grounds of the Golf Club and the Palace. Mr. Rao himself gives a figure of 231 trees, which is likely to be an underestimate in my reckoning.

Problem 4:
This alignment passes by the densely populated suburbs of RT Nagar, Sanjay Nagar, Palace Guttahalli, Sahakar Nagar etc. The residents of these places will suffer during the construction phase without getting any benefit at completion. There are no stations close to where they live, so while they can see the trains zipping past tantalisingly closeby, there is no way for them to get on to it and head towards the CBD. Moreover, given that the only viable route along the arterial Bellary/Sankey Road has been taken for the Airport link, there is not even the hope that a line built at a later stage would serve them.

Solution to 2,34?
It is easy to find fault but what is the solution! Without the expertise and information available to the DMRC, it is difficult to come up with a viable alternative, but I have taken a shot at one, with the intent of throwing up ideas for discussion and debate.

So here's my route.
Complete Route Town Centre Detail

View Larger Map

View Larger Map
How it's different !
For one, it starts off at Plaza on MG Road, so no loss of open space.
It will have to tunnel underground from here, going below Parade Ground, till it hits Central Street. It will go along Central Street to the Shivaji Nagar Bus Depot (potentially another intermodal connection point), and continues on Northwards, mostly underground through this congested locality, till it hits Tannery Road where it could come above ground. At this point, it's route will converge with a line of Phase 2 (as reported in a local Kannada paper), which quoted Madhu (BMRC MD) as saying the line would be from Marathahalli to Yellahanka via Tannery Road. As the lines converge, it will become 4 tracks with the express tracks (airport link) in the centre, flanked by the local tracks. In an Express-Local or Fast-Slow arrangement similiar to the NY Metro, the regular trains would stop at every station while the express trains would stop at every third station. People could change from local to express (or vice versa) just by going from one side of the platform to the other - Bombay has a similar arrangement, but changing from fast to slow involves going up one flight of stairs and going down another, which is sub-optimal.
The route thus goes due North along the same road, variously called Tannery Road, Arabic College Road, Nagaware Road etc. At some point, the local line will veer left towards Yellahanka while the express line continues towards the airport.

Ticket fares for people not going to the airport will be in line with that for other metro routes. Those boarding/disembarking at the airport pay a premium (50 to 100 bucks) over regular fares to make the route viable.

Drawbacks of the alternative route
Cost will be higher since some part of the route will need to be underground. The overground part may need land acquisition if there are 4 tracks instead of 2.
It is still worth exploring seriously since
1) It preserves open space
2) Fewer trees will be sacrificed
3) It serves the local community as well as the airport bound traffic.

Let's make things better.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Banal Office Parks and the Urban Context.

I work at this place where everybody starts their sentences with "So". They are big on tee shirts, for every occasions - Silicon Valley culture I guess, and they gave me a pretty cool one when I picked up my offer letter. After a couple of months here and after hearing every sentence beginning with that word, if they asked me to design a new newbie tee shirt, it would say "So, I work at ......".

The reason I am telling you this is that things like this sort of creep into your bloodstream and if you find me start many of my sentences like this, I don't want you to blame my teachers in the many, mostly good, schools that I went to. They did OK. It's my job that messed me up.

So, like I was saying, I went with some people to check out a temporary facility (at RMZ Ecospace) for the business process teams at my org. It was the first time I was on the outer ring road between Airport & Sarjapur Road. I am sure this is old news to you guys, but the place was sprouting Tech Parks like Bangalore in the boom days. Oh right, that's about now.

Mostly ofcourse soul numbing, lifeless corporate park type places - a lot of glass boxes thrown together, a Coffee Day in the lobby so you think the place is buzzing, an overlarge nylon tent that is the food court. No desire or ability to create an urban context, a sense of place. Just high walls with of cheap-labour security guards to create a ghetto of the icard-dangling-on-ribbon blessed.

Street grid, mixed use, pedestrian friendly, transit friendly, avenues for sport & recreation, places of culture - you must be talking in ancient egyptian hieroglyphic. Sorry, can't undershtand. Perhaps if you spoke slowly and loudly........

This ofcourse is classic case of market failure. And hardly unexpected. The reason that Bangalore is such a great town, besides the weather, is one small acronym - BDA. All the good neighbourhoods in Bangalore - IndiraNagar, Koramangala, Jayanagar, Malleswaram etc were created as planned developments by the BDA (or its predecessor). They cut up the land into parks, roads, civic amenity sites and plots. A certain inherent flexibility in the land use zoning that Bangalore has had, allowed areas to change over time, starting off as sparsely populated suburbs and transforming to higher density housing, retail and commercial centres. Koramangala over the last 10 years is a highly accelerated example of this. Ofcourse the British laid the foundation, but they brought their marvellous understand of urban planning to Bombay. Look what we have done with her since.

Now, with Bean Town becoming Boom Town, and the BDA having becoming somewhat defunct since the Arkavathy layout setback, private developers are buying chunks of land and developing them without an understanding of how the parts stitch together to form a whole, the necessity of civic amenities like schools, theatres, parks, playgrounds that give richness to the life of the inhabitants and ultimately add to the value of the place. If the market was able to do this efficiently, Ulhasnagar would have been the Colaba & Bandra of Bombay. Right now it is somewhere between its armpit and its arsehole and the High Court would love to demolish the lot if the bloody politician got out of the way.

Granted, the state can screw up - look at Nariman Point. Ofcourse some of you are saying Nariman Point aint half bad. Which means that with a public/muncipal institution designed plan, even the failures are sins of omissions (they could have done so much more) than of derision (what f@#k did I just step into!).
And occasionally private players can do an OK job - DLF built pretty much all of south Delhi - South Ex, GK etc. But they had a large canvas to play with and were town planning authority by default. You look at Lutyen's Delhi, then look again at Greater Kailash and wonder at the failure of imagination. You think even a duffer could have done better.

So I want to be real proud about our 10% GDP growth rate and all the Indians it is lifting out of poverty, but I worry that it is destroying the one city in this country I can live in. I haven't tried Kolkata, and I think I might like it, but there's pretty much nothing else.
One of the best things that happened to Bangalore was the Real Estate crash of '99-2000, sort of coinciding/triggerred off by the dotcom burst. Lot of crap builders building crap buildings went under and out of this rubble, the ones left over - Prestige, Brigade etc had some sense of aesthetics and pride in the idea of Bangalore. And then Krishna, blessed be he, came to power and revitalized the BDA and they distributed so many thousands of plots which was more than they had done in the previous two decades.

So, bottom line - I need the bubble to burst and I want SM Krishna back in power. And I want the BDA to design every new area that is developed - once they have carved it up to draw the outlines of the larger picture, the private guys can come in, buy plots and build their stuff. It will all come together beautifully. That is how they do it in the civilized countries of Europe, and I deserve no less.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Random Musings

Shows how late I am to the blogging world that it took me some 20 attempts to come up with a blog url that was not already taken.
What BeenTown will be about, I don't know yet. Rants and raves. Especially about things I am passionate about - Bangalore, Architecture & Town Planning, Urban Transport. Maybe some musings about my travels. Anything else that catches my fancy.

So the Zen question is - does a blog that is never read, really exist ?