Now that Mumbai is back to its pre-pandemic rhythms, the old complaints and pain points are back too, including the pet peeve of millions – traffic congestion. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, slow crawling traffic, non-moving or stationary traffic, clogged highways and chaotic inner roads, wrong side driving, and haphazard parking are all par for the course in India’s Maximum City. If this is bad news, it is set to get worse in the years ahead unless comprehensive and strong measures are taken at this juncture.
The congestion is bound to happen given that the total number of vehicles on Mumbai’s roads crossed the 4.3 million mark with private cars nearly doubling their presence in the last decade, according to recent reports. The near 100 per cent rise in the number of private vehicles – we shall come to the reasons later – along with a substantive rise in the number of two-wheelers, buses, taxis, and auto-rickshaws in an island-estuarine city with limited land space can only lead to one outcome: super dense congestion on all its roads. The total number of vehicles in Mumbai are up 112 per cent in only ten years making it the most vehicular dense city – in addition to the most densely populated one – in India.
It is difficult to imagine any city in the world, however well-endowed it may be in road infrastructure, that can carry off a vehicular density of over 2,100 per kilometre without a trade-off in average speeds and increased time on roads due to congestion. What has been the response? From commuters to the government and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the issue begins with whines and complaints, one set of people on the road blaming another for the congestion, and usually ends with a nonchalant shrug. But, as the adage goes, those who complain about the traffic when stuck in it are the traffic.
Mumbai may be the outlier among India’s metropolitan cities given that Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Chennai, and Pune among others, have vehicular densities half or less than half that in the commercial capital. This is primarily because, among other reasons, these cities are not helmed in by their geography and can expand their road lengths.
However, with rising incomes of professionals in the formal sector and the aspirational value of owning private vehicles – both cars and two-wheelers – road congestion and traffic-related problems are set to rise in all cities and towns. Today’s Mumbai may well be another city in the next decade.
Cities are what they are because of the mobility and transport options they offer – relatively higher, easier, and safer in Mumbai compared to other cities – but this part of urbanisation has remained on the back burner in most cities in the post-liberalisation decades. The emphasis of urban growth was on making land available for development or redevelopment for commercial or residential purposes, without paying equal attention to the roads or carriageways connecting these land parcels and expanding them to hold increased and changed traffic patterns. There has been no dearth of studies and reports on urban mobility and transport-commute sector but they rarely have these informed policies.
In fact, it is difficult to find a cogent and comprehensive policy on mobility and city transport that has kept pace with the development-redevelopment, or even the imagination, of cities. Projects such as the vast metro network in Mumbai or Pune are pencilled and added on to the existing transport grid to show an upgrade in transport infrastructure, without taking into account existing flows of commuters and traffic or integrating the new projects into the existing routes.
Each such project, glorious or commonplace, then sits as an anachronism in the urban space without making a substantive and substantial difference to commuters and their lives. Take examples from the last decade in Mumbai. The skywalks at railway stations were touted as the next best thing for pedestrians which would smoothen traffic flow on the roads below. Years later, they lie unused, occupied by the homeless or street vendors, or have been dismantled. The monorail on the city’s eastern side, hailed for its functionality, is under-utilised. The Bandra-Worli sea link carries far less traffic than it was projected to.
The missing link here is there for all to see: Mumbai does not have a robust, inclusive, comprehensive transport plan that ensures safe and comfortable mobility for all her citizens. If there was a plan and policies were crafted in accordance with it, there would be a sense of traffic flows along with timelines, traffic distribution between public and private transport, measures to cap private vehicles beyond a breaking point, measures to limit the use of private vehicles and move commuters to public transport, ensure availability of a range of public transport options to suit different needs, expansion of the public transport network within hard deadlines to avoid the delays now seen in the metro construction, and so on.
People in cities will move, and cities function because of people’s mobility. Not planning and providing for mobility will result in chaos and delays on the streets or railway-metro networks. There’s no nice way to put this: The emphasis on exclusive and private transport infrastructure such as flyovers and sea links has robbed Mumbai of the chance to substantially develop and expand its public transport network to meet changing commuter flows and demands. And poor or inadequate public transport, or insufficiently networked options such as not connecting the last mile, has pushed people to choose private vehicles. Road congestion and traffic snarls are, then, par for the course.
There are urgent fire-fighting measures that the state government and the civic corporation can put in place to reduce the congestion and make traffic flows smoother - make a new registration of private vehicles prohibitively expensive and dependent on demonstration of parking space, regulate the entry of vehicles into certain areas by their registration numbers, make staggering work hours compulsory for government and private workplaces, provide luxury air-conditioned bus options from point to point, and more. For reasons best known to them, neither the state government nor the BMC has acted on these tried and tested measures in other cities of the world.
The larger concern is, of course, the division and balance between the private and public in the transport network. People are surprised to know how skewed the distribution of road space between the two is. The staggering rise in private vehicles has meant that they now occupy nearly half the road space in Mumbai; add the two-wheelers to this and it works out to nearly three-fourths of the road space. This, to carry a small percentage of commuters.
The project-based or project-driven approach to transport infrastructure has meant that the city does not always get what it needs – but what governments and contractors desire – and that people’s mobility or comfortable commute carries low priority. This is already unsustainable and will be more so in the years to come.
(The author is journalist and urban chronicler, founder-editor of ‘Question of Cities’. She writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and media. She tweets at @smrutibombay)