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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bhopal - mitigating parking woes


The local edition of Times of India recently came out with a series of features on parking problems in Bhopal. It covered several localities, mostly, what they called “congested”. Among them were No 10, MP Nagar Malviya Nagar and, of course, New Market. Curiously, there was no mention of the areas like Peer Gate, Moti Masjid, Budhwara and such areas of Old Bhopal that continue to remain deprived of attention of the authorities in this regard.

However, the newspaper missed a very important point relating to provision of parking facilities in these areas. It never seems to have appeared to it, and that is where the authorities are going to find land for the burgeoning number of 2 and 4 wheelers in the town. In the last ten years there has been a very strong surge in their numbers and thousands are being added every month regardless of rising fuel costs, congestion on the roads, unruly traffic and rising volumes of noxious, polluting and earth-warming gases in the city’s air. Jungles of two-wheelers are ubiquitous in the town, especially in centres of trade and business. Clearly, the parking problem is progressively becoming so formidable that the Municipal Corporation will be hard put to cope with the demand for parking places – whether spread over empty and vacant lands or in multi-storeyed parking lots.

What, therefore, are needed are measures to curb the rise in number of vehicles. True, acquiring a vehicle is basically aspiration-driven. Everyone aspires to own a vehicle and none could really hold it against them. But what one witnesses today is possession of multiple vehicles by families – a couple of four-wheelers (if not more) or one or more 4-wheelers in combination with one or more two wheelers. Many families, especially in the Chowk area, have as many as half a dozen two wheelers. With growing prosperity among the middle classes owning multiple vehicles has become commonplace. This indulgence is witnessed regardless of availability or otherwise of space in the house to accommodate all the vehicles. No wonder, in most of the residential areas one finds today cars parked for most part of the day and at night out on the narrow colony roads. Among many families of traders even the housewife has a four-wheeler for her exclusive use which is seldom used. This confirms the contention of Sunita Narain, the editor of the prestigious environmental magazine “Down to Earth”. According to her a vehicle sits on its four wheels for 90% of the time either at home or in a parking lot.

While raising the cost of petrol/diesel, hiking taxes on vehicles and making the parking fees prohibitive have been the common measures recommended for limiting the rise in the number of vehicles, a measure that has received attention lately is ensuring that the purchaser of a vehicle has space at home to park his vehicle. The purchaser of a new four wheeler will have to prove it to the vehicle registering authority that he has enough space at his place to park his vehicle. Difficult of enforcement, such a provision if enforced is likely to be expensive as the government will have to provide for manpower for verifications of claims by the purchaser. Many, therefore, consider it as impracticable.

What, however, is urgently required is to reduce the number of vehicles plying on the roads, particularly at peak traffic hours. For that many towns have adopted various measures. Some have ordered plying of vehicles of even numbers on some days and those with odd numbers on others. Others have adopted a far harsher method of imposing what is known as “Congestion tax”. A fee of 5 Pounds was levied on every vehicle that entered the highly congested Central London as congestion tax a few years ago. The fee may have been hiked by now. I recall as far back as in 1981 a car, even a taxi, could not enter the High Street of Singapore unless it had four occupants, including the driver. Each town and country puts together regulations according to its needs and keeping in view its capability of enforcing them.

We in Bhopal, however, suffer from a seemingly incurable malady of non-governance. This is more pronounced in so far as managing traffic on the roads is concerned. Traffic Police seem to have thrown in the towel. It is not that they are incapable. They, in fact, suffer from lack of manpower and, of course, interference from our revered “netas”. When the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum requested some of our ministers and MLAs that, given the uncontrolled, disorderly and riotous traffic on the roads, the Traffic Police should be allowed to freely enforce the extant rules they met with a veritable Chinese Great Wall. They were plainly told the “netas” could not keep quiet when their friends, relatives or constituents requested for intervention on being caught on the wrong side of the law. Not only their prerogative, it was their duty towards their constituents and near and dear ones. Nothing could be a more frank admission of subversion of governance by our elected leaders for personal interests. In such an environment Traffic Police can do very little. In all probability, therefore, respite from the chaotic traffic on the city roads in the foreseeable future is unlikely despite the recent claims of “sushasan” (good governance) by the state government in full page ads on the birthday of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The best option, therefore, that commends itself is strengthening of the public transport system. Bhopal for a long time did not have a public transport system barring the ramshackle minibuses that were and still are a horrific terror on the roads. Under the JN National Urban Renewal Mission the Centre mercifully provided for modern and decent low-floor buses. Their fleet has been gradually enlarged and some more are likely to be added, including air-conditioned ones. Good, decent and punctual buses will only nudge people away from their personal vehicles, be it a two wheeler or a four wheeler. As roads become more and more congested (which is very likely when BRTS is commissioned) and traffic becomes more riotous pushing the figures of casualties northwards people will surely take to the buses. The managements of the transportation services will have, however, to inspire confidence of the commuting public in their services by running well-maintained buses punctually to attract the middle classes. Disruptions in services, as happened, recently would need to be strictly avoided. This will be of benefit in several ways, such as helping the commuter to save on daily commutes, saving precious fuel 70% of which is imported, reducing congestion on the roads and reducing emission of carbon in the atmosphere of an already warmed-up globe. A well-oiled public transport system will also help in mitigating the ever-increasing parking woes of the people. The Corporation may also find a bit of a respite from pressures for provision of larger and larger parking spaces. Since the Red and Purple buses are currently being run under the management of the Municipal Corporation it is in its own interest to strive for their ever-rising acceptance among the commuters.

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