I have written previously about parking spots replacing parks and playgrounds in cities like Bangalore and Chennai. Now we learn that even houses will be demolished and river beds covered up to make parking lots. It is time we asked our government – in this case the Chennai Corporation – why parking should be given such high priority. How much more should we give up for parking?
Perhaps it is best to start with the particulars of this project. Link Road is about 1 km long and encircles a small area of Chennai bounded off on the other side by Chennai’s main arterial road – Anna Salai (previously called Mount Road). This part of Anna Salai is a major business center with several attractions that bring in thousands of employees and customers everyday. Higginbotham’s is India’s oldest bookstore. Spencer Plaza – Chennai’s first and perhaps most popular mall. The LIC building was Chennai’s first skyscraper and is still considered a landmark. This area also has several art galleries, schools, colleges and places of worship, which probably bring in their share of commuters and visitors. Link Road is bound to its west by the Cooum river, which now resembles a sewerage canal more than a river.
The Link Road project will create a five-metre-wide parking lot along the entire length of the road to accommodate 500 cars. The parking lot will be built on construction debris dumped on the land. 140 squatter households will be “rehabilitated” in tenements built by the State Slum Clearance Board at an undisclosed location. Currently the displacement of the slum settlement is not complete, but Phase I of the parking lot with a capacity of 300 cars has already been built. All reports seem to suggest that the parking lot will be for the exclusive use of cars.
The image above shows the street design of Link Road. From this image, it becomes clear that illegal parking is a problem, but it also appears that most of the vehicles parked are school vans, not cars. The sidewalk on one side is narrow, and is blocked by trees and streetlights. On the side of the parking lot, there is no sidewalk at all.
This description throws up several objections to the use of one side of the street as a dedicated parking lot.
1. It’s quite irresponsible for the city corporation to cover up construction debris with tiles on the bed of a river that is known to flood due to the narrowing of its channel. This would have been less of an issue if the river “water” was not 80% more polluted than treated sewer. As it is, the danger of people coming into contact with this water should factor so highly in the minds of city planners that they do everything in their power to prevent this river from flooding. A sane government would clear up the debris and create a tree-laden water-retention zone rather than covering up the debris with more stone and cement.
If the river does get cleaned up (which will depend on the changing moods of the new government) this land could even be converted into a green refuge for people to enjoy the waters of the Cooum rather than a concrete refuge for cars. But that’s a distant dream.
2. If we choose to set environmental concerns aside, then surely this land can be better used in building a sidewalk on the left side (as seen in the above image) and widening the sidewalk on the right side. Pedestrians’ right to safe passage should surely be given greater priority than the “right to park at will” that Indian motorists have claimed while our governments bend over backwards to fulfill their every whim.
3. While there seems to be some latent demand for parking as expressed by the amount of illegal parking on the street, that demand seems to come largely from vans serving school and college students. If that is indeed the case, the demand can be better served by having dedicated pick-up and drop areas for students. As for the rest, better implementation of parking rules should do the trick.
4. Insofar as this is a solution for parking shortage in Anna Salai, I have two questions for the people who planned this parking lot as a solution. If a person parks his/her car on Link Road, how is s/he supposed to walk to Anna Salai if there are no usable sidewalks? I would also like to know on what basis was it decided that the parking lot should be for the exclusive use of cars.
Perhaps a better solution would be to simply hike the parking rates in Anna Salai so that the equilibrium between demand and supply is restored. It should also help that the Chennai Metro will provide connectivity to this part of the city, thereby reducing the demand for parking.
5. There might be strong environmental and health arguments in favour of relocating the squatter settlements on the banks of the Cooum. But clearly the restoration of the Cooum is not the motive behind this bout of relocation. Having said that, one must wonder about the priorities of a government that would relocate 140 houses in order to accommodate 200 cars.
Assuming an average household size of four, 140 houses provide housing to about 560 persons, which is probably more than the number of persons benefiting from the parking lot at a given point in time. These 500-odd people probably also have good economic reasons for living where they live, despite the unwholesome environment. Most slum-dwellers find housing close to work, which would suggest that they live in this area for the same reasons as the car-owners wish to park their cars there. The demand for housing at a convenient location should certainly mean more to our cities than the totally unreasonable demand made by car-owners that parking be convenient and cheap.
Given the array of objections against this parking lot, it is worrying that the Corporation would even consider such a project for implementation. There can be only one explanation for it. That the planners working in the Chennai Corporation consider the interests of society to be the same as the narrow short-term interests of the elite who would benefit from a cheaply priced parking lot for their cars.