x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bangalore's traffic gridlock painful for commuters

Jams across the southern Indian city are slowing a tech boom that has caused the population to jump almost 50 per cent in a decade to 9.6 million.

BANGALORE // For visitors to Bangalore, India's technology capital, the worst leg of their journey can begin after leaving the city's airport.

The 35-kilometre drive to downtown from the gleaming terminal can take as long as two hours as motorists contend with congestion, wrong-lane driving, tractors and pedestrians on a road lined with shops and houses. A US$119 million (Dh437m) upgrade is adding to the jam, with more than half of the six-lane link closed off in some sections for building work.

Jams across the southern Indian city are slowing a tech boom that has caused the population to jump almost 50 per cent in a decade to 9.6 million. Infosys Ltd has delayed a 22.5 billion rupee (Dh1.4m) development in the city for two years partly because of congestion, while other technology companies have set up operations in Hyderabad and Chennai instead.

"Bangalore is possibly 15 years behind because we don't have proper planning," said T V Mohandas Pai, a former Infosys director who now heads a state initiative to boost the technology industry. "You have to create infrastructure ahead of the need."

Work on the airport-road upgrade only started two years after the airport opened in May 2008. It will be completed at least five months after the planned November deadline, according to the National Highways Authority of India's website. Builder Navayuga Engineering Co did not respond to repeated calls and e-mailed questions about the project.

The hold-up in starting work was partly caused by a more than three-year delay for city council elections, said R Uday Kumar, a councillor for the opposition Congress Party. The vote was eventually held in 2010 after a local government restructuring.

"More than a lack of planning, a complete lack of local democracy and local institutions contributed to the current state of the city," said Vinod Vyasulu, a Bangalore-based research adviser at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, an education institution focused on urbanisation.

The city's traffic jams make it the sixth-most painful worldwide for commuters and second-worst for parking after New Delhi, according to a 2011 survey of 20 cities by International Business Machines Corp.

"If I could wish for one thing in Bangalore it would be that it was easier to get around during the day," said John Flannery, chief executive officer of General Electric Co's India unit. The city is "clearly struggling to keep up with the level of demand".

The bottlenecks have caused Bangalore-based Infosys to delay a new facility that the state government said would create about 18,000 jobs. The software developer, which has 148 hectares of land for the project, is waiting for new roads to be built, said co-chairman S Gopalakrishnan.

"We are working with the government to create infrastructure, and I'm hoping that it will happen," he said. "But I don't have a timeline."

Bangalore has 500,000 technology workers, about 20 per cent of India's total, according to government data released this month. They mainly work in Whitefield, a suburb that was once a settlement of India's then-colonial rulers. The city's low wages and temperate climate have helped make it the world's fourth-largest technology cluster after Silicon Valley in the US, Boston and London, according to a study by Ernst & Young.

The improvements to the airport road are designed to reduce congestion and cut travel time to about 30 minutes. It will include 3.5 kms of elevated roads, said Subhash Chandra Khuntia, principal secretary at the Karnataka state government's Public Works Department. Bangalore, the state capital, is also adding other new roads and a metro network.

"It is obvious that there's a lot of work going on," said Lowell Paddock, India head for General Motors Co, which has a technology centre in the city. "I'll be curious to see in 18 months whether the city delivers on the promise."

Back in Bangalore, backhoes and cranes were this month parked in the middle of the airport road inside enclosures made of tin sheets. Few workers were on site and there was little sign of activity. Warning signs dotted along the route told drivers to go slow as they sat in barely moving jams.

GM's Mr Paddock said that local knowledge is key to avoiding the queues, after making it downtown from the airport in about an hour a couple of weeks ago. "Things are a little chaotic," he said. "I'm thankful that the driver who I have knows all the back roads."