While I’m told that discussions on a plan to widen Bengaluru’s Sankey Road, between Bhashyam Circle and Malleshwaram 18th cross – a stretch that’s one of the contributors to the city’s reputation for horrific traffic – have progressed in the last two months to become less unilateral and more consultative, the idea that road-widening can help ease traffic remains just as hare-brained, not to mention the widening itself will be marginal since this stretch is already surrounded by built property and a large fenced water body, and the city had planned to cut 50 old trees in the process.
Several studies (e.g. this, this, and this) have shown that widening roads and adding new highway lanes only temporarily eases congestion: people start to believe that the widened road is less congested than another and are encouraged to drive there, and over time, the widened road becomes similarly congested as before. Economists have a term for this: induced demand, wherein demand for X increases when the supply of X increases. The lack of exceptions to this rule should have meant urban planners should be taking it to be fact, yet they don’t, and soon, there will be even more congestion on Sankey Road.
The way the concept of induced demand operates itself says something about the manner of people’s engagement in decision-making vis-à-vis roadways. The immediate response to the supply of roadway increasing is less congestion. But the way people think also changes in response to the higher supply. This happens passively, out of sight of social media feeds and news reports, and over a few months – but plausibly sooner given the volume of vehicles that follow routes determined by Google Maps. And just as quietly, the road becomes recongested.
Or maybe planners do admit the certainty of recongestion but press ahead anyway because their priority is something other than public convenience and safety. In the interest of not reaching for malice when incompetence is within reach: easing congestion on roads has another, more laborious solution in the form of reducing the production of and disincentivising the use of cars and bikes and building better public transport. There is some talk every now and then about the latter, a lot more than the former, but on either count nothing happens.
In 2016, IISc researchers reported based on some analyses that Bengaluru is one of India’s worst cases of urban sprawl, amplified by, among other things, ad hoc land-use planning (almost an oxymoron) and iffy public transport.
At the same time, wider roads will mean more tarred area will mean more heat trapped and localised in/over that area will mean that part will become even more unlivable. Wider roads will mean more motorised vehicles will mean more emissions and pollution will mean the city will become even more unlivable. Wider roads will mean more tarred area will mean more repair work when it rains will mean more news cycles over nothing. And wider roads will mean more contracts will mean more opportunities for money to move around.