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Beyond flyovers: market forces limit our commute

Traffic snarls, slow and sub-optimal speeds of vehicles, grid-locked junctions and road rage incidents are now common among commuters in Mumbai.

columns Updated: Jan 14, 2015 15:40 IST
Devendra Fadnavis,Charles Correa,market

Traffic snarls, slow and sub-optimal speeds of vehicles, grid-locked junctions and road rage incidents are now common among commuters in the city. They are more frequent and intense than say five years ago, if we go by anecdotal evidence. Meanwhile, the peak hour crush load in suburban local trains and the city’s bus transport system has not eased – and looks set to get worse by the year.

What is in store for the city’s commuters? Larger and financially bigger projects of the sort we have seen in the last decade, according to what chief minister Devendra Fadnavis laid out in his faultless enthusiasm for Mumbai. So, we have underground metro corridors linking south-north Mumbai, the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link, multi-modal corridor between Virar and Alibaug, a mega coastal road, elevated rail corridors on the existing suburban railway systems.

The sense of déjà vu about these is justified. All planning and talk of augmenting Mumbai’s transport infrastructure in the last few years has hovered around these projects. The failures of this one-project-at-a-time approach and lop-sidedness in favour of private car users are apparent but a grand and expensive plan is still seen as a panacea. It is the “flyover” phenomenon at work.

That Mumbai does not have an integrated transport planning and management authority yet is only part of the problem. This can be rectified. What is more germane is the fundamental approach adopted by the city’s “planners”. Not professional planners but Mumbai’s de facto planners comprising politicians, bureaucrats, special interest lobbyists, pro-Establishment think tanks, and of course, the expanding cartel of real estate developers.

Much of Mumbai’s transport planning is done with either out-dated or non-existent data. The largest, official and most comprehensive data on the city’s transport systems and use was, well, ten years ago. This would be shocking anywhere in the world. In a city with more than 1 crore commuters and thousands of crores of investments, it is unpardonable.

Piecing together data from multiple sources confirms what is public knowledge – that nearly 75% of Mumbai’s commuters use – or are forced to use – public transport. Yet, it’s the flyovers, freeways and sealinks that consume most of the planned outlays on transport infrastructure.

There’s a wicked caste system on these smooth stretches: BEST buses and goods vehicles are not allowed here. Note here that a BEST bus occupies 7% of road space and carries 42-45% of the city’s commuters while private cars occupy between 82 and 85% of the road space ferrying 55% of those on the roads, as the indefatigable analyst Ashok Datar showed two years ago.

There’s another aspect to the mess that is transport planning. It has been on the basis of Passenger Car Unit, as per the prevailing norm. Vehicles going from point to point are tracked, studied, projected and infrastructure planned around it. Analysts repeatedly show that transport planning must move from vehicle movement to commuter mobility. How do people get from one place to another, how often, by what modes, the intersections for multiple modes, seamless transfers between modes and so on are hardly factors that are weighed in.

Back in 1995, Nitin Gadkari, then the state’s public works department minister, told us that the 40-50 flyovers network would ease mobility in the city for decades. It was a piecemeal approach; it left the city in a vicious cycle of more cars and the need for more road space for cars. Mumbai now has 8 lakh cars and 14 lakh two-wheelers in a total of 25 lakh vehicles, according to the Regional Transport Authority.

There was a 90% increase in car registration between 2002 and 2012. This should have led planners to evolve a car regulation policy, covering purchase and ownership, parking and use. But which planner and chief minister will run the risk of annoying car owners? Mumbai’s transport policies, like its real estate policies, are increasingly at the mercy of the mammon.

Charles Correa nailed it when he said “Market forces don’t create cities, they destroy cities” while concluding his acceptance speech at the Hindustan Times’ HT for Mumbai Lifetime Achievement award last Friday. It’s a pity that the chief minister could not listen to the legendary Correa’s words that night.

First Published: Jan 14, 2015 15:34 IST