The CMDA has announced that 125 roads in the city are to be widened to enable faster vehicular movement. To start with, it has identified 25 roads that require immediate attention. This has become a routine exercise in Chennai and is at best a knee-jerk reaction to the worsening vehicular density in the city. However, road widening cannot be the panacea for this problem. What is required is a holistic approach that looks at traffic as a consequence of faulty planning, mixed zoning and poor parking facilities. That unfortunately is lacking.

In March this year, the CMDA released the findings of a study on traffic speeds in the city and this showed that from an average of 30 kmph in 1992, vehicles today move at less than 20 kmph. Some of the areas such as Kodambakkam clocked in average speeds of less than 15 kmph. Rather than analysing as to why this is happening, the CMDA has decided to take the easy approach of widening the roads which is at best a short-term measure and will be a futile exercise in the long run.

The root cause of traffic congestion lies in the mixed zoning laws that came to be implemented in Chennai from 1975 onwards. This has today resulted in a scenario where multi-storeyed office blocks and commercial establishments are permitted to be built just about anywhere. Schools, offices, restaurants and clubs are permitted to come up in narrow cul-de-sacs and subject as these are to peak traffic and parking loads at specific periods of the day, they contribute significantly towards the slowing down of traffic in the neighbourhood. It is quite clear that while sanctioning these establishments, no thought is given by the authorities on the possible impact they can have on the neighbourhood.

That this problem is only intensifying can be gauged by the fact that two congested areas of the city are currently in the middle of massive construction projects. The first is Mount Road which is witnessing a number of multi-storeyed commercial complexes coming up on the stretch between Nandanam and Guindy. The other is San Thome, where in the vicinity of Quibble’s Island, a number of projects are on-going. Once these are completed, there will be untold chaos on the roads that lead to these areas. But none of this has been thought about and permission has been given for these developments.

Another crucial factor that affects traffic movement is haphazard parking. While this is conveniently blamed on careless motorists, it is a direct consequence of builders violating laws with impunity. The CMDA rules for parking are quite clear (see box) and stipulate ratios of parking spaces to built-up areas for residential and commercial buildings. But none of these are really put into practice. If only they were, we would be seeing relatively smaller shopping malls, with larger parking spaces and not the other way round. As for residential complexes, almost none of them plan for visitors’ car parking. These vehicles are expected to be parked along footpaths outside the buildings and they consequently clog up the roads even more. In the case of commercial complexes, it is a well-known fact that several of them violate parking norms and contribute to the degradation of the surrounding areas in abundant measure.
The Government has been making vague noises about multi-level parking lots in the city. But these have been planned in areas that are full-up and attempts at hijacking parks for this purpose have met with protests. In not one instance was a multi-level car park thought of even when the rapid commercialisation of the area began and was still at a level when it could be handled and controlled. Consequently, not one of the planned parking facilities has really become reality.

Chennai, according to CMDA statistics, adds a 1000 vehicles to its roads every day. Can road-widening alone be a solution for a problem of such a mammoth scale? Can property owners be asked repeatedly to give up their lands for road-widening, albeit with compensation? Is it not the responsibility of the authorities to do some soul-searching and see where the problem really lies? Unless these questions are seriously looked at and some long-term vision emerges, we are only heading for more grid-locks in the city.