Thomas White Global Investing
India
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October 28, 2011
A Postcard from the Asia Pacific
India: Namma Metro: The New Pride of Bangalore

Namma Metro: The New Pride of Bangalore

The Bangalore Metro could become the first modern feature of the city and benefit more than a million commuters a day.

It has been a long time coming. First proposed more than two decades ago, the Bangalore Metro railway system has taken a long, winding, and arduous path to its opening launch. Like many other public projects of this scale, the Bangalore Metro had to cope with its fair share of initial skepticism, project delays, cost overruns, and safety concerns. But when a young female driver gently guided the silver and purple colored cars on their first run into the gleaming Mahatma Gandhi Road Station at the heart of the city last week, nearly 50,000 people waved and smiled in approval. As is customary for such occasions in India, priests were standing ready to pray for an auspicious future. During the first weekend, all the stations were overflowing with excited first-time riders. They had to wait no longer.

Despite the fanfare, Metro services have been launched only on a short four mile stretch and are estimated to take another three years before covering most of the city. When the first two phases are completed, scheduled for 2014, the two lines of the system that connect the four corners of the city will cover nearly 30 miles. At full capacity, the nearly $3 billion project, which is partly funded by the Japanese government, is designed to carry more than a million passengers a day at affordable fares. Befitting Bangalore’s status as the Silicon Valley of Asia, all the trains will be Wi-Fi enabled.

It is easy enough to appreciate the eagerness of Bangaloreans to ride the Metro. Driven by the unprecedented development in the technology and services outsourcing industries, Bangalore has grown at the fastest pace among major Indian cities. Just over the last decade, the total population in the city has exploded nearly 50% to more than 9 million. The sleepy cantonment town built by the British, which later became a retirees’ paradise, was ill-equipped for this transformation into one of the foremost centers of the global digital revolution, and the showpiece of an emerging India. As Bangalore filled with migrants from the rest of India, most of them earning enough to afford private transport, the city’s arterial streets clogged and the daily commute became a nightmare. Soon the lure of pick-up and drop-off services between home and work became a highly prized benefit offered by employers to attract young professionals.

Still, the city administration did try to ease commuter pain by building elevated bridges at intersections across the city and even erecting an elevated highway stretch several miles long in one of the industrial suburbs. Though high-capacity modern buses offered respite from driving, they did little to bring down the average commute times, and narrow streets made it difficult to expand the bus services.

The traffic became so bad that Bangalore was ranked the worst city for driving in India, and the sixth worst globally, on this year’s IBM Global Commuter Pain Survey. So it is no wonder that most Bangaloreans could hardly wait to leave their cars and motorcycles at home and ride the Metro to work for the first time. Those living close enough to their workplaces even began to dream of the day when they could take a quick dash home for lunch.

The significance of this project to the future growth of Bangalore cannot be overemphasized. While the city is the original technology boom town in India and remains home to some of the largest companies in the sector, it has gradually become less attractive to companies setting up new facilities. Poor transport infrastructure has been one of the major deterrents for these businesses, and many of them have preferred to expand in other centers across India. While a new airport improved the lot of visitors to Bangalore, the infrastructure for intra-city transport continued to be substandard as the Metro project was delayed.

But now, with the Metro as its centerpiece, Bangalore has the opportunity to build a modern urban transport system and regain its edge over other Indian cities. No less significant is the enhanced quality of life that easy transportation will bring to Bangalore residents. One just needs only to look to Delhi, and the success of its less than a decade-old metro railway system. Once derided as an unviable trophy project of the government, the Delhi Metro is now improving the daily lives of millions of people. Apart from cutting down the travel time to work, the Delhi railway system has made the large parks and entertainment facilities in the city center easily accessible to residents of the far flung suburbs. The improvement in productivity and the savings in fuel consumption are often less appreciated, but are among the major benefits of a modern public transport system.

In the past, Bangalore has always been regarded as the most livable among the large Indian cities. Its pleasant climate all year around, not to mention its cosmopolitan culture, attracted the initial wave of Indian and multinational companies in the technology and services sectors. Still, even as they have benefited from the boom, most Bangaloreans have bemoaned the crumbling infrastructure. Though their city became globally famous, Bangaloreans have not had any world class landmark or structure to be proud of. When its promise is fulfilled though, the Metro could become the first truly modern feature of a 21st century Indian city. And most appropriately, it is named ‘Namma Metro’ or ‘Our Metro’ – the new pride of Bangalore.

 

Image Credit: The Hindu Archives

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