Affordable alternatives

Last Monday, we attended a wedding reception. It was held in a lovely hall outside of Chennai at a place called Porur! My husband  was not keen on attending it. Reason? He did not want us to drive out to this place at the worst time of the day- 6 PM. So we took a cab. The time on the card said “7 PM onwards”. We left around 6 PM and reached the venue by about 8 PM. 

So what took us so long to cover a distance that is less than 15 km? Yes, it is a “no brainer”- we were held up in traffic. While traffic was part of the problem, the road conditions were miserable to say the least.  I felt really sorry for the chap driving us and admired him for his cool. The husband, had he been driving would have lost his within minutes of getting behind the wheel!

Traffic nightmares are not peculiar to Chennai. With rapid urbanization, the population in the city is literally bursting at its seams! And Chennai has its own peculiar problems- the roads do not seem adequate to hold the vehicles running on them and there are certain roads where a person cannot even walk a few meters because, there is no space left for them to walk on! 

Chennai is a bit different from places like Delhi and Mumbai where the number of two wheelers on the road are far lesser. In addition to the two wheelers, there are cyclists, three wheelers like autos, small trucks ( and sometimes large ones too) , all of them causing a mess that even the Lord Almighty cannot clean up! 

I am listing below some thoughts about how we can solve the traffic problems in this city. These are some simple options we can follow which do not involve building flyovers or under passes  and providing opportunities for politicians to mint money.

1.   Offices can seriously take stock of their HR and look at the people whose jobs require them to come to office everyday. Those people whose jobs are output driven, and not requiring physical office presence, can be given laptops and allowed to work from home. It would improve their quality of life along with keeping them off the road. I firmly believe that it would take care of atleast 20% of the traffic congestion, while also reducing the expenditure on office space rental. I am a firm advocate of the “work from home” option.  My present organization has permitted me to do it and I am immensely thankful to them for that.  I had lobbied a lot for it in the previous organization. Though a lot of women in the head office were provided with that option, my supervisor at the Chennai office  was not for it. I guess it made him feel good to have his team around him and spend about 3 hrs of work time every day in meetings that could have been completed over phone using the conference call option. I am increasingly beginning to believe that every Chennai boss thinks like him. 

2.   Offices in every part of the city should have some policies around making carpooling compulsory and have bus services to pick up and drop people from specific points. There are offices that do this but these are located well outside the city. The same applies to school. All schools should make commuting by school bus or public transport compulsory.  Carpooling to schools is not a practical option if carpooling to work place is made compulsory. Coming to school by school bus, public transport, walk or bicycle creates a feeling of healthy equality among kids. My daughter has been taking the school bus to her school since the time she was two and a half years old. Her school is located in the OMR which about 15 years ago did not have the good roads that it now has. People were shocked that we were sending such a young child by school bus! But I  believe that was the best thing we did for her. She made more friends than she would have had she been picked up or dropped by car.  Even carpooling would have restricted her interaction to those few kids alone. 

3.   Certain parts of the city like the North and South Usman roads should be closed for private transport at all times. By private transport I mean, two wheelers, cars and autorickshaws. Pavements should be widened encouraging people to walk in this shopping area. People can take buses or walk. It would make shopping a more pleasant experience. For the elderly there can be a few cycle rickshaws which they can board from specific points. 

4.   When people apply for vehicle licenses the application should be carefully scrutinized to see if the family already has another vehicle. If they do then they have to provide convincing reasons as to why they want to have another car or bike. There should be very strict rules about three member families like mine wanting to have two cars. 

5.   Two wheeler manufacture and sales need to be reviewed. Most of them have two stroke engines which are polluting 

6.   Finally, there should be system of charging vehicle users very heavily for the use of the road. Some sort of meter can be fixed to the cars and two wheelers so that every time one uses it the person can be charged for the number of kilometers it runs. 

Chennai has a fairly good public transport system. But , people do not seem to be using  it as much as they ought to. A road with fewer cars and scooters would be easier for buses and if the number of AC buses can be increased then life on the road would become much easier. With the metro coming in there would be another important option. 

Unfortunately, people in this city have a lot of western ( read American) aspirations where every member of the family wants to drive around in a car.  The evolution of this can be traced back to the days of the IT boom when salaries skyrocketed!!  People thought they could realize the American dream in a South Indian city! Banks were quick to realize the  business option around this dream giving rise to easy access to vehicle loans. The lower middle classes not to be outdone used this option for buying two wheelers which they slowly upgraded to a four wheeler. They sometimes retain both vehicles often using the two wheelers to negotiate the difficult streets in places like T Nagar.

I think it is about time we realized that India is not America. Every member of the family does not have to have a car. Housewives can easily walk to do their grocery shopping and kids can take the school bus or public bus. We have a huge urban population which requires mass transport options. No amount of fly overs or under passes will be enough to contain this burgeoning vehicle population. Most of the times one feels like standing in a queue in the Tirupati temple while driving through traffic in the city. We stand more than we move. 

I firmly believe that where there is a will there is a way. Why is public transportation considered so demeaning to travel in? I have always taken buses and trains and I do not feel ashamed about it. People often ask me why I don’t drive when I learnt how to and also possess a driving license? While I am extremely nervous about driving under the conditions that exist I must say I do not WANT to drive  to get from point A to point B. And given the traffic issues one is not going to arrive earlier simply because one drove to that point. I am perfectly comfortable with  arriving somewhere in a bus, train or an auto.  I am who I am and do not need a car to tell the world about it. 

I believe that if there are more numbers of people opting for public transport, there  would be more pressure on the government to increase the frequency and quality of buses. If we can pay Rs 100 for a short distance by auto or bear the exorbitant fuel costs for our fancy cars we can certainly cough up Rs 50 or so for a one way travel by an air-conditioned bus. 

 Where there is a will there is a way. And as I have mentioned earlier, all ways proposed need not involve state expenditure.  It just calls for a holistic effort at urban planning that explores options beyond infrastructure involving all stakeholders concerned. And I believe it SHOULD be possible in a democracy!


  1. Interesting post. I agree with you on most of the ideas. The one I disagree is “work from home”. I do not think majority of Indians have the discipline to work from home. I said majority and did not say all. Even in office, under the watchful eye of the supervisor/manager, people goof off. Are they going to work full 8 hours in a “work from home” environment? I don’t think so.

    Public transportation is fine. But the very sight of a bus coming to a stop with too many passengers – people even hanging on the foot board. No room even to board the bus. On top of it, 100 people trying to board the already crowded bus. Makes me scary.

  2. Chronic problems need resolute actions and often harsh solutions.While the road sppace remains at 7% constantly,the unberable proliferation of apartment complexes,automobiles,business establishmments that attract huge crowd like restaurents,textile and jewelry virtually choke the existing narrow roads that are also in demand for metro.
    The migration to cities is steady and unrelenting.Industries should be started in rural areas and not in cities
    As immediate measure all malls and business establishments(eating,textile and jewelry) should be shifted to outskirts in different directions as they did with kothwal chavadi and steel market to Sattahangadu.No licences for malls or business establishments including IT industry within city.
    Residential complexes should make provision for cars double the number of apartments within the busilding.No licecnces without it.
    Production of small cars should be slowed down
    Rapid transport system to criss cross the city.
    Offices should be removed to outskirts.
    A satellite city can be thought of to ease the pressure on the city.

  3. Hi Meera,

    Such an informative post. Having lived in Bangalore all my life, i can relate to the frustrations of living in a city with a humongous traffic woes! I now live in Singapore and i like the way they have controlled the number of cars on the road. The government here enforces a COE (certificate of entitlement), which costs a lot of money. Once you buy this certificate, you become eligible to buy a car. Now the COE ranges between 60,000$ to 90,000$. This ensures that not everyone buys a car and uses the public transport instead, which itself is very efficient.

    Enjjoyed reading your post. :)


  4. @ KP I wish to disagree on some of your points. If industries are stared in rural areas then farmers would lose land and pollution would be a direct consequence. It will be difficult shifting businesses out of what is clearly understood as a business/ commerical area. But zoning laws can be made stricter to ensure that commercial and residential spaces are kept separate. Residential complexes are meant for people to live in- unfortunately these people come with 2to 3 vehicles and that is where the trouble begins!! Satellite cities would not make sense if people had to commute to the main city for work. Look at Delhi- Gurgaon, Delhi- Noida.

  5. @ Pallavi, what we need is the Singapore alternative- make it very expensive for the people to run their cars and then they will stay out of the roads! Public transport will be forced to improve its quality and efficiency and meet the Singapore standards

  6. @SG work from home may not work for activity driven positions but output driven positions can very well function from wherever people are. One needs to be given a clear task and time line to deliver. It should not matter to the boss as to what the employee does so long as s/he delivers. I find that now that I work from home, I waste less time gossiping with colleagues or sitting around in meetings that are long and boring. Public transport improvement can happen only when there is a demand for it and unless people who matter start using it the demand would not be acknowledged ( sad but true)!

  7. Fair suggestions indeed. But limiting the number of motor vehicles per family may be an unthinkable matter in an economy that is more capitalist and consumer driven.
    The limiting factor is the weather. A country like Holland for instance fancies itself as the bicycling country, thank its weather. One cannot think of cycling around in Chennai.
    A better equipped mass transport system (air-conditioned buses for instance) is surely a better option than the day light robbery of autorick walas.
    Your suggestion of higher taxes for plying on roads is unviable with the ever increasing burden of fuel cost. That will kill commercial sales of motor vehicles.
    The best option are better roads, civic sense vis a vis compliance of traffic rules and consideration for fellow road users. And the dearth is found in these matters.

  8. Very nice post Meera ji.. I really liked the design which is looking like a book.
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