Mumbai commute: Small changes, big impacts
Changing people’s behaviour is hard; changing a city’s routine is harder. But we, in Mumbai, do not any longer have the luxury to live, work and commute the way we used to. Given the abysmal condition of the road and rail network in the city, notwithstanding that their improvement is a perpetual work-in-progress, it would be foolish to not attempt changes which could save time, make commutes less stressful and, actually, save lives.
Nearly 23,500 commuters – an average of nine-ten every day – have lost their lives since 2011 in suburban train accidents because the system has been weighed under super-dense crush load during peak hours. Vehicular movement on arterial roads has dropped to about eight kilometres per hour or less during the morning and evening peak hours. Driving 26.5 kilometres from Bandra to Borivili on the Western Express Highway routinely takes three-and-a-half hours. Traffic violations to beat the rush, frayed tempers and road rage, and high levels of air and noise pollution are now considered par for the course; they should not be so.
In the New Year, there have been at least two new nudges to modify our work and commute routines – one from a private individual and another from the Bombay high court.
Staggered work timings is an old idea but it got new life when Nandini Dias, an advertising professional, urged corporates to consider it and launched a foundation for its advocacy. Employees could choose to clock in between 8am and 11am and log out correspondingly between 4pm and 7pm so that all hands are on corporate decks between 11am and 4pm, she suggested. It was backed by the India chapter of the International Advertising Association.
The idea sparked off discussions. Corporate offices will hopefully move from discussions to action. Hopefully, because when the state government mooted it to offices in Bandra-Kurla Complex in November last, in view of the construction work for Metro, the financial sector headquarters there had not warmed up to it. Historically, Mumbai’s mills and factories had shift timings; the rise of the service sector led to concentrated rush hours. Staggered timings can ease the rush. A whopping 6.32 lakh commuters take the trains in the morning rush hour between 8.30am and 9.30am, according to available data. Decision-makers, though, are more likely to use personal cars. Their commutes would also ease.
The high court is seized of the matter too, funnily enough. On a public interest litigation, the HC asked the state government earlier this week to seriously consider options such as staggered office timings, staggered weekly offs instead of the mandatory Saturday-Sunday, restrictions on purchase of private vehicles, limitations on their movement, and development of water transport. This was not the first time. In September 2016, the HC had advised the government to restrict private vehicles by laying down the one-car-one-family policy and asked all agencies to work out a “holistic policy” on traffic.
The one measure Mumbai’s authorities have been shying away from is congestion pricing. It is a tried-and-tested method in international cities – London’s then mayor introduced it in 2003; Singapore, Stockholm, San Francisco, New York have it. Jakarta began a High Occupancy Vehicle regulation requiring at least three persons in a vehicle on major roads during designated hours; when it was discontinued two years ago, rush hour traffic speeds had declined from 17 to 12 miles per hour in the mornings, and 13 to 7 miles per hour in evenings, showed an international study.
The reluctance to put congestion pricing in Mumbai on the discussion table is perhaps a pointer to how careful the authorities are about keeping car owners and users happy. Critics of the policy will argue that public transport needs to be upgraded and made accessible before congestion pricing can be a reality. In fact, cities have used the enhanced revenue for road improvement projects. There’s no reason why Mumbai cannot do it too.
In the long run, the capacity has to be augmented. Till then, we should not baulk at making a few critical changes.