Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Metro railways and failure of urban planning in India

I have written earlier about the abysmal state of urban planning in India. A recent survey by Bangalore-based non-profit Janagraha too highlight the same. A classic example of this failure is the lack of planning surrounding the construction of metro rail projects in many cities. 

Consider this. Urban Economics 101 teaches us that cities are characterized by density. It generates knowledge, financial, and logistical network externalities; efficient markets for both buyers and sellers; and economies of scale in the provision of public infrastructure. But high density requires the infrastructure to support it - primarily the carrying capacity of roads and transit, water and sewerage. It is the mandate of urban planners to facilitate this process of densification.  

There has been no bigger catalyst to densification in our cities in recent years than the construction of many corridors of metro railway lines. In fact, the full benefits of metro rail projects, with capacity to handle 50000-80000 passengers per hour per direction, can be captured only by having very dense corridors. However, this requires co-ordinated action to augment water and sewerage distribution networks as well as incentivize further construction in these areas. Given the scarce vacant lands in these corridors, the only possible way to increase built-up space is by going vertical. This would in turn require planned increases in Floor Area Ratios (FAR) in parts of these corridors.  

But metro rail projects across India are being executed in isolation, not as part of a larger urban planning initiative. This constitutes a massively inefficient deployment of scarce public resources. It is also a lost opportunity for urban transformation.

For example, in the absence of further densification, the biggest beneficiaries of the first phase of the Mumbai metro, the 11.4 km Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar (VAG) link, are the property owners in the corridor. In fact, the rail line constitutes a massive transfer to them from the future property buyers as well as renters, in addition to the construction subsidy.

The Mumbai Municipal Corporation would do well to improve other civic infrastructure in these areas and raise the FAR to facilitate new construction to leverage the full benefits of the new metro line. It would incentivize redevelopment and new additions to residential and commercial stock, thereby stabilizing property prices and preventing the emergence of sprawls. Much the same is required from urban planners in other cities where metros are under construction. 

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