So, a piece of major news doing rounds in the local circuit is the construction of the Dighalipuhkuri – Noonmati flyover in Guwahati. This 4.5 km long (some sources say it will be 6 km long) flyover will cut through the heart of ‘old’ Guwahati — one of the few regions in this ever-growing metropolis that has a still verdant canopy. The initial budget approval for the construction of the 4-lane flyover is Rs 852.68 crore. Many view this as a marvellous feat of development and modernisation of our beloved city.
Our school WhatsApp group wasn’t impervious to the news of the flyover either. On a busy Wednesday morning someone popped the question, “Guys, is the new flyover really needed?” The question produced responses ranging from “What new flyover?” to “When will this madness end?” Irrespective, it ignited a healthy discussion which went on for the best part of the day. And that discussion among childhood friends, who are now in different professions and have a cumulative wealth of knowledge and experience, prompted me to pen down my thoughts on flyovers and their efficacy in solving traffic problems.
I was also partially inspired by a friend in that same WhatsApp group who mocked the whole discussion by saying that everybody can pretend to be a town planner on WhatsApp. But jokes apart, if we, as residents and taxpayers of the city, do not question the requirement of such a complex project that will forever alter our cityscape, and possibly the way we live, who will? An aware citizen need not be a town planner or a subject matter expert to question such publicly funded projects that have an immense bearing on the ecology of the region.
So, does Guwahati need yet another flyover?
Short answer. No.
The long answer is interesting and requires us to contemplate many things we take for granted and, more importantly, the choices we make as individuals.
Let’s start with a basic question. Why do we build flyovers? We build flyovers to solve a problem. What is that problem? In urban settlements and densely populated areas, that problem usually is vehicular traffic congestion and the ensuing loss of productivity. Of course, flyovers are built to solve other problems too, such as providing a safe crossing for animals in animal corridors. But generally, flyovers are built to ease traffic congestion. Just like a stent is put in to ease blood flow in clogged arteries. Please do keep this analogy in mind; later on, you’ll understand its relevance.
Now, flyovers are one of the many traffic management measures available to us. Other measures include controlling vehicle volume, traffic signals, vehicular speed limits, speed bumps (breakers), one-ways and no-entry zones, roundabouts, manual signalling, self-learning (intelligent) traffic management systems and so on. Among all such measures, the flyover is the most expensive method to manage traffic, both economically and ecologically.
However, irrespective of the traffic management measures that we choose, we are ultimately trying to fix the symptom and not the cause. We are trying to muscle our way through the plaque in the artery, rather than preventing the build-up of plaque by making healthier choices. Similarly, we need a holistic approach to understanding the causes of vehicular traffic congestion and finding ways to address the cause and not the symptom.
What causes such unmanageable traffic? Quite simply put; decades of car-centric urban development.
At approximately 99,000 registered vehicles in Guwahati in 2022 (Ministry of Road Transport and Highways data accessed through the ‘Vahan’ dashboard), approximately one-fifth of all vehicles in the state are concentrated in the city! 40% of all cars, 30% of all commercial vehicles, 40% of all buses, and 15% of all two-wheelers in the state were registered in Guwahati in 2022. At present, there are 13 lakh vehicles in the city.
According to population projections based on 2011 census data, the current population of Guwahati is between 12 to 13 lakhs. So, you see, there are more vehicles in Guwahati than people!
Moreover, the road infrastructure of the city has not kept up with its economic development and population growth. There are a limited number of roads in Guwahati — approximately 140 of them spanning about 1,000 km in total length. You may now argue that this is precisely why we should build more flyovers and expand roads. Unfortunately, the solution is not so straightforward.
What’s happening in Guwahati is what experts and transport planners call induced demand. Building or broadening roads and constructing flyovers encourage people to drive more, which in turn increases the traffic volume. Let me help you visualise it. Suppose you stay in the Rukminigaon area. Before the Downtown and Ganeshguri flyovers existed, you’d probably have shopped in the Six Mile and Dispur areas. But with the flyovers and shopping malls, your preference of shopping location changes to the G S Road area — as it does for most other Guwahati residents. There is a name for this phenomenon. It’s called the Fundamental Law of Road Congestion. It states that for 1% more asphalt (roads) traffic congestion increases by 1%. It is a vicious cycle.
There is another interesting concept called Marchetti’s constant. Simply put, it says that people spend about 70-80 minutes daily getting about, whether in their cars, public transport, bicycles, or by walking. It is called the travel time budget. So, faster transportation options encourage people to travel greater distances. What this means is that if you could do a hypothetical return trip between Shillong and Guwahati in about 80 minutes, you may opt to shift to Shillong and travel to Guwahati daily for work. I know I would; as would myriad others. Imagine what that’d do to the traffic situation between Guwahati and Shillong!
By now you must have sensed what I am getting at. Yes, flyovers and broader roads are short-sighted solutions. They may give a temporary illusion of decongesting traffic, but eventually, they lead to far greater traffic woes. In the WhatsApp group discussion that prompted me to write this article, a friend countered me with the fact that the Arya Nagar flyover has indeed smoothened traffic in the Arya Nagar junction. It is true. However, the congestion has now shifted towards the Birubari main road area and towards Nepali Mandir. The old flyovers of Guwahati are classic examples. As the traffic volumes catch up, they no longer serve their purpose. Traffic comes to a standstill on those flyovers now. Flyovers are just a means of shifting traffic congestion from one place to another.
There are almost no studies that cover the impact of a flyover on traffic over the former’s lifespan. Most studies focus on the immediate benefits in terms of reduced travel time. There is little focus on how traffic patterns and traffic flow rates are affected in the adjoining areas and the future efficacy of the flyover as traffic volumes increase.
Do you know what’ll happen after the widening of the stretch of NH 27 between Khanapara and Jalukbari? There will be traffic snarls at both ends because the road narrows down at those junctions. Ultimately your effective commute time will remain the same. That is the bottleneck effect, or, if you prefer, the weakest link principle; no matter how much you plan, a single bottleneck will lead to traffic chaos. And some of these bottlenecks cannot be done away with.
So, what are the alternatives and solutions that can effectively manage traffic and, yet be sustainable? Can I, or you, for that matter provide any solution? Because as you will recall from the beginning of the article I was labelled a voodoo town planner by a friend. However, it turns out that I can indeed attempt to make some suggestions. Based on experience, a little bit of travel, and a fair amount of reading and research, I’ll risk suggesting some options.
The first thing we need to do as a society is to do away with the notion that the car is an ideal and aspirational mode of transportation. It is absolutely not. The administration should provide for and incentivise public and non-motorised (walking, cycling, pedal-powered rickshaws etc.) transportation so that we are encouraged to use sustainable means of transportation. Do bear in mind that all sustainable transports have a lesser per capita physical and carbon footprint; even cars when pooled.
Guwahati has such an amazing bus network. If only it were more disciplined. If you have used app-based bus services, you’ll know how convenient they are. We should have an app-based bus network for Guwahati, which is punctual, convenient, and safe. We can also consider a hop-on-hop-off feature for buses. Or a Bus Rapid Transit system. We have an equally robust intermediate para transit network — tempos, autorickshaws, e-rickshaws, ‘Magics’ etc. They provide excellent first and last-mile connectivity. But again, they need to be better regulated and made safer and user-friendly. A common payment method for all public transport would do wonders; like the Transport for London Oyster card.
Other solutions could include the introduction of a congestion fee for entering certain areas during peak hours. Introducing off-peak vehicle registration plates like the ones in Singapore. Providing the option of cheaper road taxes and vehicle registration fees but with limited mobility, for example, only during weekends.
There are other pragmatic solutions as well, such as using a two-wheeler instead of a car when commuting alone. Or use public transport at least once a week. I stay in the Bharalumukh area and use my bicycle within a 3 km radius. This helps me beat the horrible Kumarpara-Bharalumukh-Paasali traffic congestion. I sometimes walk to Fasi Bazar, which is approximately 2 km away. By doing that not only do I escape vehicular traffic, but I also do not need to go around in circles looking for a parking spot. In fact, another slightly radical and counter-intuitive idea is to do away with free parking. The lack of parking spaces forces people to embrace more sustainable means of commuting.
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We must also explore our river network. The Brahmaputra runs right through Guwahati, but inland water transportation within the city is largely underutilised. Beyond connecting the northern and southern banks, we must use it to connect places along the eastern and western points as well. Imagine what a scenic stroll it’ll be walking beside the Brahmaputra from Bharalumukh to Uzan Bazar!
We should also explore employer-initiated TDM (transport demand management) strategies. These include employers providing employees with subsidies and incentives for using public or sustainable transportation, carpooling, or providing last-mile connectivity to office premises.
Ultimately, the solution lies in our hands. With the help and support of the administration and a bit of perception change on our behalf, we can make commuting less stressful and more efficient. We need not build another flyover. Bear in mind the words of Daniel Goeudevert, “Who sows roads, reaps traffic.”
The author is an engineer with a Master’s degree in public administration. He is a full-time strategy and management consultant.
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