Woman and child in pedestrian walkway, Chennai

February 13, 2020

Chennai: 1985 and Today

On the Anniversary of ITDP’s 35th Year, Transport Matters will be publishing a series of articles about cities that ITDP has worked in, comparing them from 1985 and today. The article in full can be found in the Sustainable Transport Magazine. Read the first article, on Buenos Aires here.

Chennai, the birthplace of the Indian railway system, was also home to the nation’s first electric trams, in 1895. Unfortunately, politicians chose to end the service in the early 1950s, with the idea of building “modern” roads and bridges for cars. By 1985, Chennai, then known as Madras, had seen its car and motorcycle populations accelerate to more than 200,000. It would rise to 600,000 by 1992, 3.6 million in 2012, and is nearly six million today. Combined with an emphasis on building roads and elevated highways, the city quickly began to see air quality worsen, and travel times grow, as the city lacks sufficient public transport options.

Chennai Before

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The capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is a city of ten million, located on the Bay of Bengal in South India. Chennai is a tech hub, and home to Tamil Cinema Studios, as well much of India’s automotive industry. Chennai is also a city at the forefront of climate change, with increased floods that cost lives and city damage. Fortunately, Chennai is beginning to move in the right direction, with an emphasis on improved transport management, and a budget commitment to redesign streets to prioritize cycling and walking.

In 2015, Chennai began a redesign of kilometers of pedestrian paths and today has completed 100 kilometers, and began Car free Sundays. In the same year, Chennai opened a metro line, which now has grown to a daily ridership around 120,000.  In 2019, Chennai opened a pedestrian plaza on a busy shopping street and has launched a bike share system with facilities close to other transit stations. These actions are important steps in creating a safer, more welcoming pedestrian and cycling environment, but are still not enough to transform the city away from cars. The vast majority of Chennaties travel by walking, two wheeled vehicles, or buses.  The question is if Chennai can continue to create space on its streets for these users, rather than creating more and more space for cars.

Chennai Today

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Chennai’s improvements have not gone unnoticed, and ITDP staff are featured in this news segment about the pedestrian improvements in Chennai.

Chennai in Numbers

To measure and study cities’ growth objectively, metrics were employed looking at population, density, transit. Kilometers of rapid transit is defined as rapid transit that meets the definition of BRT basics in the BRT Standard, in Chennai kilometers of rapid transit grew from 54.1 in 1985 to 101.8 in 2018. While the kilometers doubled, so too did the population and built up area, meaning that service remained relatively the same. To study how a population is served by rapid transit, the Rapid Transit to Resident Ratio (RTR) compares the population with the length of rapid transit lines – this number shows how well a population is served by rapid transit. Unfortunately for Chennai residents, RTR has remained relatively unchanged in the past 35 years.


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