I have driven from Chennai to Bangalore and back several times in the past few years, including 3 times in 2009. In my aging car, far from the fastest on the road, the one-way trip takes around 6 hours -- but about a third of that time is spent within the two cities. It takes barely four hours to go from Poonamallee, on the outskirts of Chennai, to Electronic City, on the outskirts of Bangalore, thanks to the new four-lane expressway, part of the "golden quadrilateral" project initiated by former prime minister A B Vajpayee. Some of the cars that pass me on the drive are, I am sure, doing over 150 kmph -- they probably take under 3 hours to travel between the two suburbs.
I called it an expressway, but that is a severe misnomer. At very few points is it elevated: nearly all crossings are on the surface, meaning you had better slow down as you approach them (though very few drivers do) -- and you had better be extremely cautious if you actually want to cross that road. There are several small towns and villages en route, and I wonder what life is like for their residents, especially the elderly and infirm among them. It cannot be fun crossing a 4-lane expressway, with 100+ kmph traffic, on foot when you are over 80 years old. Why couldn't elevated roads have been built across inhabited areas (as it is at Vellore, the largest town on the route)? The cost is certainly more, but what about the human lives saved?
It is the same story near where I work: the road once called "Canal bank road", now called "Rajiv Gandhi Salai", and informally called the "IT corridor", is a 4-lane road that, for an over 2 km stretch between the Madhya Kailash and Tidel Park intersections (well within city limits), does not have a single traffic light. Traffic routinely goes at 80kmph on this stretch, and I am sure some vehicles do well over 100kmph. The powers that be eventually, after much protest, installed some pedestrian overbridges, but it is far too little. Whose bright idea was it to have an "expressway" at surface level in the middle of the city? Worse, an important hospital, the Voluntary Health Services (that caters mainly to the poor and less-affluent sections of society), is situated near the beginning of the road, but on the "wrong" side for people coming from central Chennai -- so they are forced to take a 4km detour, to the end of the road and back, to enter the hospital, adding to their travel costs.
Which brings me to two news items that intrigued me recently. The first is this article on the NICE expressway in Bangalore, and how recent protests from villagers have stalled traffic on it. Says the article,
The NICE peripheral road is turning into an anomaly of sorts as commuters are finding it difficult to traverse through the expressway. For a week now, traffic on the peripheral road stretches linking Mysore Road-Tumkur Road and Mysore Road-Bannerghatta Road have ground to a halt, what with farmers protesting against alleged excess land acquisition resorting to road blockades.
The Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise (NICE), meanwhile, is losing lakhs of rupees in the form of toll fees collected from the vehicles. The aggrieved company has shot off a letter to the state government demanding its intervention to resolve the issue.
Nasty villagers, blocking law-abiding, toll-paying car-owners from using the shiny new expressway in their SUVs and Volkswagen Jettas because "excess land" was acquired. How can an expressway be built without acquiring land? Don't we all know that expressways boost the local economy? What are they complaining about?
Well, deep inside this article (which is about a spat between Deve Gowda and Yeddyurappa, I find a different version of the protest: the villagers are "demanding that NICE build a bridge across the road in the wake of a recent accident involving a school bus".
How about demanding that expressways be built elevated over all villages, and with grade-separaters at all existing intersections? Or else, install a few traffic lights and stop calling it an expressway. This perversion of the word "expressway" is a fraud on the Indian people, and a deadly one. [Update 11/01: Sridhar points out in a comment that an "expressway" is only partially access-controlled and may have a few at-grade intersections, while a "freeway" has no at-grade intersections. But I don't think the term "partial control of access" applies to our expressways. They go right through towns, even medium-sized towns like Ambur on the Chennai-Bangalore road, effectively cutting them in two.]
If the villagers can get hold of a good lawyer, I think this would be PIL material -- by no means restricted to NICE.