Today, 2000 kilometres of roads in Mumbai are occupied by 26.28 lakh vehicles. If that does not surprise you, consider this: 1,72,372 vehicles were added to Mumbai’s streets in 2015. So, chaos on the streets is inevitable if the city continues to prioritise private vehicles over public transport on its roads, say urban planners.
Most of those who use the roads, and not the suburban rail network, for their commute either have their own cars and two-wheelers or use taxis and autorickshaws. Transport experts say the road public transport system is a shambles. This is evident from the falling number of those using BEST buses.
“Unless a vehicle crashes into another, the morning commute is pleasant for everyone,” says an officer from Samta Nagar police station, which handles a stretch of the Western Express Highway. Within a couple of hours of daybreak, the highway starts to teem with vehicles heading for the corporate offices in south Mumbai.
The officer must have been talking about the early morning hours as rush hour is maddening. Car, bikes, autorickshaws and trucks all fight for space. From Dahisar to Bandra traffic is usually slow-moving. Minor accidents and breakdowns do not help.
But the situation gets really chaotic in the evening hours.
The western suburbs are the worst affected because they have the most number of private vehicles in the city. According to the Motor Vehicles Department, between April and September last year, the western suburbs accounted for 54,375 of the 1,05,029 vehicles registered in Mumbai.
Despite such a surge in the number of vehicles in the city, the number of traffic police personnel has not increased, adding to the problems.
“Congestion as a result of increasing levels of car use tends to be a self-inflicted problem, ” UK-based urban cities expert Philipp Rode told Hindustan Times. Executive Director at London School of Economics and Political Science in the LSE Cities department, Rode has authored several research papers in the phenomenon of urban cities.
In his 2007 paper on Mumbai, Rode observed: “Regardless of Mumbai’s density and compactness, the city experiences a massive increase in motorised vehicles, generally following the same pattern of most cities in developing economies. And while no city in India is prepared to accommodate this growth, Mumbai’s dense urban environment proves particularly vulnerable to the flood of vehicles.”
Transport and urban planning experts in the city agree with Rode. Says Alka Shah, transport expert, “We need good public transport connectivity from one point to another, which will help decongest. The government should organise share-a-taxi and share-an-auto systems and encourage people to use them.”
“As the city aims to improve its mobility, it proposes to build more roads, which will only induce vehicular congestion. We need to rethink our approach to congestion and utilise the space that is available more effectively. Completing our road network by providing east-west connectivity and the missing links across the city is a more effective strategy than adding road space,” said Priyanka Vasudevan, urban transport expert.
Shah agrees with Vasudevan that the numerous flyovers that have cropped up in the city only transfer traffic congestion from one location to another. The most recent example is the Balasaheb Thackeray flyover, which is adding to the congestion at the start and end of the flyover, both in Jogeshwari (east) on the Western Express Highway and Jogeshwari (west) on SV Road. Motorists complain of delays of at least 10 minutes on SV Road as an additional traffic signal had to be installed at both ends of the 1.2 kilometre flyover. The other end of the flyover connecting the highway has a traffic signal timed at three minutes but motorists take at least six minutes to cross the signal due to the traffic build-up before the signal. Says Rode, “It is also obvious that the construction of flyovers, fuel subsidies and free parking further incentivises more car use and ultimately leads not only to more congestion but to the destruction of the city itself.”
Mumbai’s BEST bus service, which ferried around 40 lakh commuters a day in 2014, witnessed a dramatic decrease in the commuter share in 2015. The commuter count has been continuously dipping. In June last year, the figure reached 28.39 lakh passengers, sources in the BEST department said. “To reduce congestion, we have to really start concentrating on public transport. There is a lack of serious plans to de-congest the city, and it can be only done if public transport is strengthened and taken into consideration,” Shah added.
Says Vasudevan, “Enhancing the bus network by creating a safe and well-connected network of segregated lanes can drastically improve mobility.”