Urban Agenda | Learning the way of the water holds the key to decluttering city traffic - Hindustan Times

Urban Agenda | Learning the way of the water holds the key to decluttering city traffic

Apr 17, 2024 11:38 AM IST

Water transport lost favour as roads and bridges made travel faster. But that is not the case anymore. Now, waterways offer parallel routes to many destinations

As motor vehicles clog streets and road infrastructure hits its physical limits, water transport, one of the earliest modes of transportation, is finding favour again. In certain Indian cities, it is transforming to bring about modern-day efficiency, safety, and comfort in travel.

The Kochi water metro (Twitter/CMOKerala) PREMIUM
The Kochi water metro (Twitter/CMOKerala)

Kochi, a coastal city with a rich maritime history, launched the Kochi Water Metro in April 2023. Srinagar has invited tenders for a bus-like public transit system for boats, utilising the iconic Dal Lake and Jhelum River waterways. The temple cities of Varanasi and Ayodhya have acquired catamarans similar to those with the Kochi Water Metro to enhance passenger service and boost tourism.

Boat rides evoke a sense of romanticism and can be a good branding for a city. Srinagar’s houseboats and shikaras have already achieved iconic status. Kochi, too, occasionally organises Kerala’s famous snake boat regatta. However, now they hope to go beyond recreational activities and make their boat services an established mode of public transit, a solution to traffic congestion, and a cleaner, greener alternative to fossil-fuel-run motor vehicles.

Srinagar: 'Shikara-wallas' row their boats through partially frozen Dal Lake, in Srinagar, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. The 40-day harshest winter period in Kashmir, known as Chillai Kalan, began from Thursday. (PTI Photo) (PTI12_21_2023_000137A)(PTI)
Srinagar: 'Shikara-wallas' row their boats through partially frozen Dal Lake, in Srinagar, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. The 40-day harshest winter period in Kashmir, known as Chillai Kalan, began from Thursday. (PTI Photo) (PTI12_21_2023_000137A)(PTI)

Srinagar’s float plan

The revitalisation of the water transport system is one of the key projects being pursued by Srinagar Smart City Limited (SSCL), a special-purpose vehicle set up under the Union government-funded Smart Cities Mission. “It is an important initiative to give the people of Srinagar more modes of public transport, taking advantage of the existing waterways and water bodies in the city, said Owais Ahmed, chief executive officer of SSCL.

Dotted with lakes and the mighty Jhelum, Srinagar was built on water. “All the prominent mosques, temples, markets, schools, rest houses, libraries, hospitals and other public facilities are next to the water. That’s how people accessed these places in the past. But in the last 60-70 years, the city lost touch with its waterways and focussed more on automobiles,” said Anuj Malhotra, general manager, planning and urban development at SSCL.

With an extensive waterway network already available, ignoring it would have been impractical. More than 200,000 people live within a 500-metre radius of the waterfronts of Jhelum and Dal Lake. “In Srinagar, the land and water routes converge. All that is required is access and connectivity,” said Malhotra, adding that water and surface transport will soon be an integrated transit network.

The plan is to hire 32 boats to sail on an 80-km interconnected network between Dal Lake and the Jhelum. There will be 45 points for boarding and alighting. Public bicycles will be available at the ghats for last-mile connectivity. Simultaneously, Srinagar has plans to boost its public bus service by expanding the present fleet of 100 buses to 750 by 2040.

Water transport is also climate-friendly. “We’ll have electrified boats to reduce pollution. It is a definite move towards Green Mobility,” said Ahmed, adding that charging stations are planned along major boarding-alighting points.

Unlike the Kochi Water Metro, which has inducted large vessels capable of carrying 100 passengers each, Srinagar will get smaller boats, each with a capacity to ferry 30 persons. Kochi got bigger boats because it has the advantage of being on the sea. “The water column in an ocean is much deeper than that in a river or a lake, so Srinagar had to go for smaller boats,” explained Ahmed.

For efficiency, a metro-style automatic fare collection system will be implemented. The boat service will be integrated with other public transport through the National Common Mobility Card. The Integrated Control and Command System built under the Smart Cities Mission will also be used for real-time boat tracking.

The pros and cons of water transport

For all its advantages — low cost, high carrying capacity and less polluting — water transport has one major drawback: slow travel speed. “The time it takes to dock and undock a ferry is so high that it cannot operate as a rapid transit. It can carry many people, but it tends to be slow. That's why when bridges were built, boats lost out. In cities, time is of the essence,” said O P Agarwal, former IAS, ex-CEO of World Resources Institute (India) and the lead author of the National Urban Transport Policy-2006.

Agarwal, who served as the secretary of the transport department in Assam, said most people who couldn’t afford or access other modes of travel used water transport. “In Guwahati, many people who do not own motor vehicles take the ferry because, for them, the option is to take a bus, which may be equally slow. Also, the technology (to run water transport) has remained outdated. It has great potential but requires serious investment in technology and upgrading.”

In places such as Kochi, where the water bodies are big, taking a road network means going around that water body, which is a much longer distance. Thus, the Water Metro becomes useful, he added.

Kochi’s Metro on water

Kerala's business hub, Kochi is located on a sizeable estuarine system that includes the Malabar coast in the Arabian Sea, several small islands on the backwaters, Lake Vembanad, rivers Periyar and Muvattupuzha and a web of canals forming a network of 900 km of waterways.

For the islanders, boats have been the easiest way to get around here but not necessarily the most reliable and comfortable. In 2017, mainland Kochi got the Metro, which has since grown into a network of 28 km. To create an integrated transit network, the government thought of bringing the comfort, convenience and high frequency of the Metro travel to water transport, said the spokesperson at the Kochi Water Metro Limited, a joint venture of the Kerala government and the Kochi Metro Rail Limited.

The Water Metro project received loan funding from the Indo-German Financial Cooperation, and the Cochin Shipyard limited (CSL) was tasked with building hybrid-electric watercraft. In April 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the service. Starting with two routes, it has added one more and has served 1.8 million people since.

There are 13 hybrid-electric vessels, each with 50 seats and a carrying capacity of 100 passengers. The frequency of service is different on each route and is anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes. After the project is completed by 2035, the service will have 79 air-conditioned vessels and 38 terminals on 15 routes connecting 10 islands in Kochi. The project will cost 819 crore. The official website states that more than 33,000 islanders are expected to benefit from the Water Metro through commercial property development and tourism-based initiatives.

Decluttering traffic on roads

People shifted from waterways to road travel because it was faster and mostly all-weather. But that is not the case anymore.

The once idyllic Srinagar now sees traffic jams. This is because there are few alternative routes. “It’s destination to destination, one road corridor for each direction. Also, expanding the road network is a challenge at present,” said Ahmed.

The existing bus fleet also needs unclogged roads to move faster. Since road space is limited, restricting private vehicles is the only way to declutter. “The bus system is slowly gaining speed efficiency as people shift towards public transport. Reduction in cars is a longer process. Hence, prioritising public transport is crucial in Srinagar,” said Malhotra.

“The viable alternative is water transport because waterways cut through the roads, making the journeys shorter and giving parallel routes to many destinations. The boat is not very slow. It will still give about 18 km/hour speed, a bit more than the city bus would take on a crowded road.”

It is essential to understand the city's geography and how the waterways are already placed, Malhotra added, giving examples of Venice and Amsterdam, where governments invested in fresh waterways that were entirely man-made because they could shorten the distance between places. “The choice of routes and how they connect places define the efficiency of people's movement,” he said.

In Kochi too, travel time is increasing because the road network is saturated. Seven years ago, a working group report for the 13th five-year plan (2017-22) warned of Kerala’s moving to “the road to eventual gridlock.”

The report said that although road traffic was generally intense, several places in the state remained under-connected. Transport demand, however, was expected to grow from 135 lakh passenger trips in 2017 to over 180 lakh by 2025. With increased incomes, more people will buy cars, and even goods traffic will increase.

Road widening is nearly impossible due to the high cost of land and uninterrupted habitations lined close to the road, so the report suggested that coastal and inland water transport must be revived. In doing so, authorities must ensure seamless ticketing through smart cards that can be used across different services and service providers.

Kochi’s water metro was therefore conceptualised as an alternative to road transport, “The waterways are not congested as far as speed goes. We specialise in short journeys, and our system is equipped to work in all weather conditions,” said the spokesperson.

Safety concerns

The common perception is that ferry rides have a high risk of accidents and people fear them more than road, train or air travel. The Water Metro had to address such concerns.

The lower west coast of the Indian peninsula, where Kochi is located, is relatively calm compared to the turbulent eastern coast, which experiences frequent storms and cyclones. Still, the Water Metro has taken precautions, said the spokesperson. “To avoid overcrowding, we regulate the entry of passengers from the terminal to the pontoon and then towards the boat. The passenger count—the limit is 100—is displayed on a digital board.”

For good measure, every boat has 120 life jackets for 100 passengers on board, including customised jackets for children and infants. The boat is designed not to flip if there is an incident. The service has a rescue-cum-work boat that moves twice as fast as the travel boat. The plan is to have five such boats by the end of the project, she said.

Getting more cities on board

Kochi Water Metro has set an example for many Indian cities located on rivers and the sea that are looking to revive or upgrade their existing ferry services.

The Inland Waterways Authority of India handed over hybrid-electric boats built by the Cochin Shipyard limited to the UP-tourism department in March. MV Guh has been delivered to Ayodhya and MV Nishadraj to Varanasi. These vessels, each with a carrying capacity of 50 persons, are meant for regular passengers as well as tourists.

The Kochi Water Metro Limited has identified 40 cities across India that could implement water-based mass transit. Kerala's Kollam and Alappuzha have approached us to do a feasibility study for them, said the spokesperson.

Shivani Singh heads the HT Urban Affairs team, which brings to you each week a story about where we live and how it affects the way we live.


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    Shivani Singh leads the Delhi Metro team for Hindustan Times. A journalist for two decades, she writes about cities and urban concerns. She has reported extensively on issues of governance, administrative and social reforms, and education.

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