Consensus, an impossibility

Published  Bangalore Mirror

Road-widening must be driven by the principle of larger good for the masses, but must be backed by reliable studies, says Praveen Sood, the former traffic police chief, in an exclusive write-up Nothing is farther from the possibility than finding a consensus among citizens on road widening. No commuter who passes through a particular road would ever oppose its widening as it helps him/her reach home faster. On the other hand, no citizen who works or stays on such a road will ever support road widening. Widening for them not only means demolishing their compound wall, house or shop but is also a cause for emotional turmoil. We cannot expect them to agree to their dwellings being razed to dust just because someone else had failed to control the growth of private vehicles or create a robust and reliable public transport system. It’s not just that. Residents know that a wider road means more traffic, more noise and more pollution, thereby eroding their quality of life.

Even when there are no dwellings to be demolished, there will always be trees which face the axe. Any attempt at reaching a consensus between those supporting road widening and those protecting the trees is another impossibility. Moreover, high decibel levels of protests cannot be a true indicator of public opinion as beneficiaries of any government move will always remain silent spectators. Therefore, all the talk about public debate and consensus is a non-starter. One’s stand depends on which side of the table one is sitting.

Without taking any side ‘for’ or ‘against’ road widening, the point I wish to make is that such decisions need to be driven by larger good for most people rather than limited good for a particular section of road users.

Road widening is a very painful exercise, both in financial and emotional terms. Most road widening projects in the past have not served any purpose because the extra carriage width thus created has become parking space. While it is easy to blame lack of enforcement, the genesis of the problem lies in lack of even minimal parking infrastructure. If only a fraction of the money that is used for road widening projects was to be spent on creating parking facilities, there would probably be no need to widen roads.

The causalities of most road widening projects is compound walls and footpaths. Vehicles which used to be parked inside compound walls, now park on the widened road. And pedestrians who earlier used to walk on pavements are forced on to the carriageway. Helping motorists encroach their space is clearly a case of bias against the right of pedestrians to walk safely.

Many a time, roads are widened without cutting trees or relocating electricity poles and transformers. These are left in the middle of the road, thus creating a far more dangerous situation than the one that existed before widening. Moreover, the space between such trees or poles becomes a natural spot for parking vehicles. This results in a situation where the actual carriage width available after the widening exercise is less than what it had been originally. A religious structure left untouched during widening will also yield similar results.

Does this mean there is no need for widening roads? Widening is required but it should be carried out at junctions and at bottlenecks to minimise the pain. It is a well established principle of transportation that the capacity of any corridor is limited to the capacity of the narrowest point or junction on that corridor.

Removing such bottlenecks and improving capacity at junctions automatically increases mobility. Indiscriminate widening that is not backed by rationale and expert opinion can never improve mobility. And so called consensus will always elude us in a pluralistic society like ours. But even larger good for masses at the cost of a few is only justified if it is backed by expert opinion and reliable studies.

Author: Praveen Sood (The views expressed are the author’s own)


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