Delhi’s Metro rail system provides an obvious opportunity to address shortcoming in urban planning and implementation, and adopt a more holistic approach which integrates different modes of transport, as well as different aspects of urban development, including infrastructure and real estate. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Delhi’s Metro rail system provides an obvious opportunity to address shortcoming in urban planning and implementation, and adopt a more holistic approach which integrates different modes of transport, as well as different aspects of urban development, including infrastructure and real estate. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Not New York, London or Shanghai, it’s New Delhi

The city could become like the other well-planned cities if it chooses to adopt transit-oriented development

Sometimes, the most bureaucratic-sounding government body can become a crucible for groundbreaking ideas.

The deceptively titled Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning and Engineering) Centre, otherwise known as Uttipec, is one such agency. Part of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the capital’s biggest landlord, Uttipec is responsible for planning all transport and traffic infrastructure projects in the city.

There is little to suggest that the Uttipec office could be the site of a revolution in Indian urban planning. It is located on the second floor of Vikas Minar, a typical government building in central Delhi. The corridors are narrow, the layout is closed-door, and the lighting is poor. But enter the office of Ashok Bhattacharjee, director of planning at Uttipec, and look at the 13ft long wall facing his desk.

The wall is covered with maps, plans and images of a new, improved Delhi, which animate the room, and capture the war-room energy of Uttipec. Bhattacharjee and his team of professional, globally trained urban planners are charting a radical shift in the way Delhi works as a city. Welcome to so-called transit-oriented development (TOD), and how it could change our daily lives.

Imagine waking up in a new, high-rise apartment block, and strolling to the nearest metro station, which is a five-minute walk away. En route, you drop off laundry at the dry cleaner, whose street-facing shop is on the ground floor of your apartment building. Young mothers are ferrying babies in strollers to the neighborhood public park for a morning outing. Vegetable vendors are setting up their produce for the day in designated spots on the pavement.

Cyclists pass by in segregated cycle lanes. Buses, cars and scooters and motorbikes keep to themselves on the roads, out of reach of pedestrians. Designated crossings allow you to access the metro station and reach the platform safely, without any unanticipated collisions with a vehicle of any kind. Is this New York, London or Shanghai? According to Uttipec, this could be New Delhi, if it chooses to adopt transit-oriented development. Uttipec’s draft TOD programme, which includes a series of pilot projects and studies, was notified by DDA in late December, after over a year of preparation.

The proposed TOD programme is remarkable for three reasons: it is essentially a new philosophical ideal, a new urban planning approach, as well as a specific set of guidelines to shape Delhi’s spatial growth.

A new urban planning ideal

“A transit-oriented development is essentially any (real estate) development, however large or small, that is focused around a transit node, and facilitates complete ease of access to that transit facility, thereby inducing people to walk and use public transportation over personal modes of transport," says Bhattacharjee.

To put it in another way, TOD is underpinned by a vision of a city that is inclusive, egalitarian and environmentally sustainable. Ordinary pedestrians are placed at its centre, rather than buildings, flyovers or cars, in a big shift from prevailing practice. Interact with the city, do not shut it out from your buildings, and we will all be better off—that’s the thought behind the policy.

TOD consists of a variety of high-density, mixed-use, mixed-income buildings, within a short distance of a rapid public transport network. Higher density, or taller buildings, within pre-specified zones near transit stations encourages more people to use public transport, and limits urban sprawl.

These forms of real estate development are very different from today’s emphasis on gated communities and flyovers, which are explicitly automobile-based, and thus geared towards prioritizing the interests of the privileged, at the expense of the ordinary urban citizen.

“Urban planners and smart growth proponents have embraced the concept of TOD in the West and there is growing awareness of this design in other countries," says Deepak Parekh, chairman of mortgage lender Housing Development Finance Corp. Ltd (HDFC).

“With increasing automobile congestion, traffic snarls and pollution, the quality of life for most of us has declined in cities," he says. “By promoting mixed land-use, encouraging the use of public transport services and increasing safety by reducing distances to transit stops, TOD appears to be the most sustainable way going forward. Studies have shown that such integrated development has proved to be successful at cutting vehicle miles travelled and reaping the efficiency benefits of density."

Place-making and its benefits

Some of the biggest gains of TOD are the most intangible—the concept of place-making, or designing urban neighbourhoods in such a way that local communities can be formed. Mixed-use, mixed-income developments, where residential, commercial, civic or institutional establishments are located close to each other allow local communities to be formed, with sufficient spaces for leisure and recreation.

Mumbai’s Shivaji Park is a classic example of a low-rise, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood, where residential, commercial and leisure amenities, such as public parks, local retailers, a hospital and schools, are all within walking distance of each other. It is no surprise that the area was explicitly planned under British rule.

“Place-making is a very important thing. We don’t have local public spaces in the city, which can be used by all classes of society. Each area must have its own quality of life, and a quality built environment. Place-making addresses that, whether commercial or residential," says Bhattacharjee.

“Place-making is about the design and communal experience of the public realm which can meaningfully improve the quality of life in our cities," says Kapil Gupta, the Mumbai-based co-founder of Serie, an award-winning international architectural practice. Place-making works, he says, when all stakeholders apply their understanding of the needs of their shared, local environment, and generate creative solutions for new urban neighbourhoods, which reflect “local specificity, culture and history of a place".

Ton Venhoeven, a Dutch architect and urban planner who is part of Delhi 2050, an urban design collaboration between the Dutch and Indian governments, said in a November interview that “TOD has been particularly successful in Asian cities such as Tokyo, where developments have been predominantly mixed-use, and concentrated along private rail corridors. That also kept open park areas, areas that are very important for leisure, which promote short-distance walking and now even cycling".

TOD has been less successful in cities such as Bangkok where the infrastructure came too late, he remarks. Integrating transport and land-use Uttipec’s TOD policy is derived from pragmatic compulsions about urban transport and traffic, as much as noble intentions about equitable, community-oriented cities.

Bhattacharjee highlights key provisions in the Master Plan Delhi 2021, which state the need for a TOD policy. The transport chapter advocates a “synergy between transport and land use", noting that previous master plans for Delhi have resulted in a “distortion between infrastructure, transport and land-use" because of too much emphasis on “road transport nodes". It envisages a “targeted modal share for public-private transport (that) is 70-30 in favour of public transportation by 2021".

Additionally, the Master Plan notes that the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) network provides “opportunities for city restructuring and optimum utilization of the land alongside MRTS corridors."

These objectives can only be achieved through a TOD policy, Bhattacharjee says. The idea that urban planning and development should be based on aligning land-use and transport is not entirely new to India, as exemplified by Mumbai’s historical expansion.

Textile mills, industrial estates, and residential chawls in early 20th-century Mumbai were located near local railway stations, and close to each other, enabling huge slices of Mumbai’s population to adopt public transport as their primary mode of mobility. But post-independence India adopted a different urban planning paradigm, which focused on controlling development through zoning and stringent land-use regulations, rather than integrating land-use and transportation networks.

Bhattarcharjee explains that until recently, urban planning methodology has been “authoritative, giving the government power to acquire land, prepare master plans and develop areas using rigid development control norms". Although this approach is aimed at “orderly development of the city through strict zoning of areas", it is counter-productive, he says.

Over-planning in Delhi led to unauthorized development and illegal economies, which are now an integral part of the city. Delhi’s metro rail system provides an obvious opportunity to address shortcoming in urban planning and implementation, and adopt a more holistic approach which integrates different modes of transport, as well as different aspects of urban development, including infrastructure and real estate.

New zones of influence

The proposed TOD’s planning policy seeks to be both market-friendly and inclusive by engaging with market forces, as Mint reported previously. The policy does not segregate areas around each station into functional zones, such as commercial or residential areas. Instead, it sets minimum benchmarks for construction in pre-defined influence zones around transit stations, and allows the market to decide what should be built in each influence zone.

For example, “at least 30% residential and 20% commercial and institutional use (including minimum 5% commercial and minimum 5% institutional use) of Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is mandatory in every new or redevelopment project within the TOD influence zone.

At least 50% of total street frontage of any TOD project should have an active frontage, i.e. a mix of at least two types of use, with different peak hours of activity stacked vertically, to provide round-the-clock eyes on the street, the policy states.

So in the intense TOD zone (defined as the 300m catchment area near all MRTS stations), a developer of a particular site can decide whether to build apartments, shops or offices, as long as the developer adheres to these minimum development norms.

This is where fine print gets tricky: TOD development control norms are both detailed and holistic. All TOD developments must necessarily be high-density, mixed-income developments, with high levels of connectivity to mass transport, and pedestrian and cycle and cycle friendly environments that promote individual safety.

Private-sector real estate developers—and potential home-owners in general—will thus need to significantly alter their mindsets, and accept a world without boundary walls, or gated communities, and one in which low-income housing rubs shoulders with upmarket residences, as it does in cities such as London.

Bhattacharjee and his colleagues hope that built-in incentives for developers, such as significantly higher FAR, depending on the type of influence zone, will help to ease likely concerns about building mixed-income communities.

Impact, challenges

The scope of the proposed TOD policy is significant: TOD influence zones, as currently defined in the policy, would comprise approximately 20% of Delhi’s 1,483 sq km. All development (including re-development of existing buildings and plots) in these influence zones must necessarily conform to its TOD development control norms.

Even if the policy is introduced to the city in a phased manner over years, as Bhattacharjee and his team currently envisage, it will fundamentally alter the city’s landscape.

Parekh underlines the importance of adopting radically new approaches to urban development. “Due to rapid urbanization, Indian cities are already compromising on urban productivity. Unless such developments take place, the strain is only going to grow. Nevertheless, the successful implementation of TOD in India will depend on the concerted efforts by both the central and state government to achieve coordination among various stakeholders."

But, there is a long way to go before the TOD policy is approved and notified by the DDA and the ministry of urban development, and is included as an additional chapter in Delhi’s 2021 Master Plan, and Bhattacharjee acknowledges the inherent challenges.

“Right now, just obtaining funding to engage specialized agencies for the preliminary studies of transport impact assessment is a challenge. Since this is a first-of-its-kind project in Delhi, we do not want to go in for a typical government tender with projects being given to the lowest bidder," says Bhattacharjee, adding that Uttipec has been granted official approval to seek philanthropic support from corporate houses, NGOs and other stakeholders to help in business modelling, which is essential to validating the programme’s feasibility.

The TOD policy is a bold attempt to meaningfully engage with property markets and consumers in building a more productive, efficient and inclusive city. Whether it will succeed in meeting its objectives will depend on whether Delhi as a city—encompassing policymakers, developers, service providers and consumers—is prepared to adopt a social-democratic ideal of a mixed-use, mixed-income city, with quality of everyday life for the ordinary citizen at the heart of its urban planning.