The State Government of Telangana has embarked on an ambitious and expensive (Rs 13,000 crores) plan to build a 330 km Regional Ring Road encircling the Hyderabad metropolitan region that connects 20 villages and small towns located 10-15 km from the Outer Ring Road (ORR). Primary reasons for this mega project, as publicised by the government, is to encourage decentralised urban developments in the form of self-sustaining satellite cities as an alternative to the congestive and expensive Hyderabad. This, coupled with the Integrated Township development Policy, announced recently by the Ministry of Municipal Administration & Urban Development (MAUD), the government hopes to bring decentralised urban development to Telangana State in the future.
In a recent interview during the 2020 Hyderabad Municipal Elections campaign, Minister of MAUD, K.T. Rama Rao talked about encouraging decentralised urbanisation by building high speed rail networks connecting Tier-2 cities of Telangana like Warangal, Nizampet, Mahbubnagar, Nalgonda etc with Hyderabad.
At the outset, it does seem that the government has the right intention of a decentralised urban growth of Telangana and is taking all the right steps towards that. In the absence of any strong and vocal opposition and inquisitive media who are supposed to critically inspect the value of such mega projects and question the government, let us, the voters and taxpayers, analyse these decisions and plans, and their impact of this action will have on the future of citizens of Telangana.
In this article, I'll analyse the following aspects about this project and suggest alternatives in the form of suburban rail corridors that will achieve the same goals of decentralised urbanization around Hyderabad faster and at a lower cost to taxpayers and environment.
- Influence of connectivity to Hyderabad on decentralised urban development
- Climate action and equitability
- Return on investment and financial sustainability
Influence of connectivity to Hyderabad on growth of satellite cities
Satellite cities are self-sustainable cities that are built around and well-connected to a major city. It has a self-sustaining ecosystem but depends on the major city for higher order functions like primary markets for labour and capital, international and domestic air connectivity, national rail connectivity etc. Satellite cities are the spokes of the Hub and 'spoke models of urbanisation and Hyderabad Metropolitan region is that central magnetic Hub that has a heavy influence on the growth of its spokes.'
In reality, these satellite cities (spokes) already exist in some form or the other, and are well connected to Hyderabad through National and State Highways. Thousands of people and tons of cargo are transported through these existing corridors everyday and have seen a rise in urban development in some pockets of areas along these highways. There is already an existing population that is growing along these highways and has decent economic activity, and some have established themselves as micro markets.
Connectivity to Hyderabad will play a crucial role in urban development of satellite cities because it provides the seed capital, labour, markets and connectivity. Hence, the impact radius of such mega transportation projects needs to be analysed in detail in order to evaluate the impact on connectivity with Hyderabad. An illustrative diagram of the RRR, ORR, existing highways and the major existing satellite cities surrounding Hyderabad Metropolitan Area is depicted below (not to scale).
The regions earmarked in RED are the primary beneficiaries of the increased connectivity due to the RRR project. Let's assume 2-3 km on each side
If you study the diagram closely, in reality, RRR connects these satellite townships and villages with each other more than bringing an increased direct connectivity to Hyderabad itself which is the central hub of the urban growth flywheel. In fact, the regions that are along the RRR and in between the National Highways will have to take a longer route to Hyderabad. Just adding yet another ring road isolates and disconnects itself from the existing corridors of economic markets and human activities.
If we analyse the urbanisation due to the ORR itself, most of the urbanisation has happened along the radial spokes, rather than along the ORR after it was commissioned in 2008. Large parts of the land parcels are yet to be developed in between the spokes that connect the city central core to ORR. My prediction is that history will repeat itself for RRR as well. I reserve my apprehensions on RRR being presented as a solution to spur the decentralised growth and development of satellite cities around Hyderabad as compared to the existing spokes in the form of National Highways.
See the google map of Hyderabad Metropolitan Region where grey indicates highly urbanised areas and yellow represents a low density or no urbanisation areas. As you see, the urban development didn't happen along the ORR, instead, it gradually and organically expanded from the central core along the spokes. As we go further away from the central core, you'll see the urbanisation near the National Highways is more than the areas in-between them. This is because of a natural tendency of urbanisation to be attracted to main transportation corridors more than the inner not-so-connected areas.
A simple way to explain this is, that if you have a circular mound of iron dust at the center, and you want to attract some dust particles away from central core by using a powerful magnet, will you keep the magnet away and parallel to the perimeter of the mound, or will you bring it near the mound, touch it at some point, and slowly move the magnet away to attract particles in the outward radial path?
Land owners along the RRR and the regions in between the spokes have built up high hopes of an expedited urban development to increase their land prices, but unfortunately, they just lost an even faster and better opportunity to achieve the same. They were just not shown better options!
Finger Plan of Copenhagen
For example, the urban form in Copenhagen, a city in Denmark and a pioneer in best urban planning practices has been strongly influenced by its core spatial strategy, the famous 'Finger Plan,' initiated in 1947 which has largely concentrated growth along transit-served corridors separated by substantial green areas. 'Finger Plan', has promoted urban growth along rail corridors radiating out from the city centre, while protecting 'green wedges' from development.
A corridor-centric growth planning system also helps in successfully implementing a rail based public transportation that, when coupled with mixed land-use and transit oriented development policies, attracts private real estate investments to fund it. This makes such investments in rail infrastructure financially sustainable as well.
Impact on climate & equitability
RRR is planned as a 6 lane (3 lane each direction) expressway. The people living in the villages and small towns that it connects are expected to travel in their personal vehicles which increases monthly fuel consumption and the monthly household expenses. The upper class and upper middle class residents living in gated communities dotting RRR will mainly depend on personal vehicles, however, the fuel costs don't negatively impact them as much as it does to middle and lower middle income class households.
This project is surely going to increase the number of private vehicles, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and doesn't incorporate sustainable and green public transportation in its plans. We have all experienced the impact of manmade climate change in the form of increased number of days of intensive rainfalls and powerful cyclones triggered in the Bay of Bengal resulting in urban floods and damaged crops. The citizens of Telangana, specifically Hyderabad, are affected due to this climate crisis and yet the government didn't consider the impact of this project on the environment, livelihood and financial impact to its citizens.
I know that no matter how much we try to instil the virtue of doing the right thing for climate and the common man, the government will go ahead with its disastrous and ill-thought plans irrespective of whether it is equitable or not, just to fill the coffers of vested interests. I hope, the least they can try and do is to dedicate one out of the three lanes for an efficient Regional level Rapid Bus Transit system, or even better, build a grade level rail track at the median for sub-urban trains (like MMTS) and limit the road lanes to two, instead of building the entire width for three lanes of only private vehicles. This will help the citizens of villages and towns to reach other cities along the RRR in lesser costs.
Governments must prioritise public funds towards sustainable public transport rather than encouraging more private vehicles that will increase pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Return on Investment / Financial Sustainability
An expensive project of this scale needs to have a solid plan of recovering at least the capital costs with interest in future. This can only happen if this project enables rapid urbanisation within its area of impact and is able to generate higher tax revenues through increase in land prices, higher volumes of real estate transactions and registrations, and road usage fees. However, as per my analysis above and learning from other successful urban models like Copenhagen, it is highly unlikely that a ring road itself will create decentralised urban growth.
There is an alternative idea (that I discuss in the next section) to increase the number of spokes that connects remote regions/villages to Hyderabad directly and undertake high speed rail transportation based projects that increases the efficiency of mobility along the existing spokes/National Highways to achieve a faster and sustainable decentralised urban growth.
Suburban Rail Corridor - A financially & environmentally sustainable urban growth model
I'll try to give a quick overview of an alternate plan that is climate friendly, sustainable and equitable, and achieves the same goals of encouraging growth of satellite cities by increasing the efficiency of connectivity of more villages/towns to Hyderabad.
In order to create the right environment and parameters conducive for a faster growth of satellite cities/towns, it is important to build faster and cheaper ways of travelling between Hyderabad city and current (and future) satellite cities. A 15-20 km length of high speed dedicated sub-urban rail network along existing national highways or on existing railway lines can increase this efficiency (reduce cost and increase speed) of mobility in a climate friendly way. This doesn't need additional land to be acquired and can be easily built on the median at grade level with a 10 foot mesh fence all along. Flyovers or underpasses can be built to pass over the railway track at few places where it passes through existing dense towns and villages. The ultimate goal should be to reduce the time taken to reach the central CBD area within an hour from any existing satellite cities along existing highways, and obviously a private vehicle or bus is not the right transport option for that (ORR diameter itself is roughly 47 km). A combination of high speed rail and metro can easily achieve that.
Won't these tracks take away road space from existing vehicular traffic? Yes, that's precisely the point of equitable roads or roads for all urbanism. Prioritise public transport and reduce space for private vehicles to bring in a paradigm shift in the population to move to a highly efficient public transport both in terms of time and cost.
These sub-urban rail networks on existing National Highways must be connected to the nearest Metro interchange station or bus stations so that hierarchical, continuous and seamless transit options are available to the commuters to reach any part of Hyderabad. Today, these locations are BHEL on the West (Extended Red Line), Uppal on the East (Blue Line) and LB Nagar on the South-East (Red line). Of course these interchange locations will primarily depend on the future expansion plans of Metro itself.
Another long term project that the government needs to consider is to add a high speed rail loop at grade level on the median of ORR which will intersect with these sub-urban rail corridors at only a few places. This will help to distribute the urban growth along ORR in the north, south and east of Hyderabad. This augments my earlier argument in a different article about how Hyderabad Metro Express is ill-planned and short sighted in its current planned form, and we can do much better.
Additionally, we may need to build more spokes of sub-urban rail corridors in the regions which do not have connectivity to any major roads like National or State Highways. Of course, this will require land acquisition.
Assuming the existing 6 National Highways, and 20 km of rail corridor in each, the total length of the project starting from ORR would be approx 120 km only as compared to the 330 km of 6 lane RRR. Assuming an average of Rs 15 crore per km, it would roughly cost Rs 1,800 cores to build the double electrified railway tracks at grade level (assuming no additional land acquisition). Add the cost of laying one flyover/underpass road for say every 3-4 km (worst case) along the corridor at Rs 25 crore per flyover/underpass, i.e 30 flyovers - 30 x 25 = Rs 750 crores. The cost of rolling stock could use a PPP model (well, railways are being privatized anyways!). The stations and the land around the stations can be developed as mixed-used high FSI real estate for commercial (retail and office space) or residential units by private real estate builders or by the private infrastructure companies like L & T, S & P etc.
Compared to this, the cost of RRR is Rs 13,000 crores out of which close to Rs 4,000 crores may be spent for land acquisition only. Even if we double the cost assumptions for rail tracks it will be well within these limits because land acquisition is completely avoided or drastically minimised.
Now you know why the Government prefers to acquire land for big infra projects rather than reuse or redevelop existing public lands!
We must learn from the urban development models of Japan and Hong Kong where private railway companies invest in building the rail/metro corridors and are given large parcels of public land for free to develop stations and real estate around it to recover the investment. This attracts private investments to such capital intensive projects. The failure of Hyderabad Metro to attract the expected ridership due to which L & T is making losses is due to several other factors like no last mile connectivity, not prioritising pedestrian and cyclist friendly paths/lanes in the metro impacted area, missing holistic and hierarchical city level transport planning and heavily subsidising private vehicle transport modes etc. Additionally, just building station malls as real estate is not sufficient to recover the capital costs. More public land around the stations should have been given to L&T to ensure that the majority of the capital cost is recovered through higher FSI residential and commercial/office space real estate projects, so that they are not dependent on ticket revenue to make it financially sustainable. So, this failure should not discourage the government to continue to pursue better PPP models for integrated transportation and real estate projects.
Government must focus on developing efficient mobility along the existing spokes, rather than adding yet another outer ring of connectivity, that will help in incrementally creating conditions suitable for growth of satellite cities surrounding Hyderabad and unlock more land for urban development near to existing economic activities. Prioritising public transport infrastructure is not only a climate action that is the need of the hour now but also an equitable use of public money with a higher chance of returns on investment and financial sustainability if done right.
The State of Telangana has a public debt close to Rs 2.3 lakh crores, and such expensive mega transport infrastructure projects with long gestation period and even longer duration for return on investments like Regional Ring Road must be backed by a holistic and integrated regional level hierarchical transport network strategy that is centered around connectivity with Hyderabad.