Answer to Mumbai’s traffic woes is AC local

On most days, beautiful Mumbai is simply smogged
Not much to choose between our top metro towns when it comes to pollution

Highest Average Air Quality in Mumbai in 2017 was 186, a 40% increase over previous three years. In 2018, WHO ranked Mumbai as 4th most polluted megacity in the world, up one rank over previous year. WHO goes on to declare that 9 out 10 people in Mumbai breath unhealthy air.

On most days, Mumbai is engulfed in thick smog, with visibility at a bare 4 km – see pictures alongside. (Air quality in New York rarely touches three digits, visibility is at 16 to 25 kms on most days. Delhi however fares far worse than Mumbai on both parameters).

Unfortunately, the state government has decided to spend thousands of crores to make air quality worse. Yes, you heard me right!

Let me share a few facts.

  1. A wide, 8-lane, signal-free Western Express Highway that connects central Mumbai to the northern end, commissioned in early 2000, dramatically brought down the commute time. Similar corridors were commissioned between Sion and Thane and between Vashi and South Mumbai. Together these have turned Mumbaikars away from local trains,  encouraging them to switch to personal vehicles. Vehicle purchase has exploded since then – growing 10 times in past 15 years (see chart below).
  2. A newspaper report few years ago stated that rapid increase in personal vehicles has reduced the number of passengers travelling by train on Western line, especially between Borivali and Goregaon, the sectors that gained the most from newly upgraded Western Express. If my memory serves me right, it mentioned a figure of around 75,000.
  3. Bandra Worli Sea link, an over-sea bridge was opened in 2009. The 5-km bridge took more than 16 years to get ready and cost Rs. 1600 crores. The bridge was projected to handle 100,000 vehicles a day within 5 years, i.e by 2014. (Two-wheelers aren’t allowed on the bridge). Expectedly, the projections were way off the mark! In 2017, only around 32,000 vehicles travelled via the sea link daily. In fact, the vehicles using the bridge actually declined 14% in 2018. Consequently, the toll collection has dropped (despite increase in toll charges)  – to barely Rs.85 crores in 2018. Remember, this is despite a ten-fold increase in vehicle since 2009. Clearly, the projections were unrealistic, and in all likelihood made only to justify it’s construction. Or its exorbitant cost.
  4. Western Railway, after much stuttering finally managed to start a fully air-conditioned local train in June last year (2018). Just one. It does eight trips a day between Virar and Churchgate. Costing just Rs.200 crores, the train is a big hit with commuters. 12,000 passengers use the service every day, having benefited over 35L of them to date. Passengers have been extolling its virtues. Most are relieved to use it instead of their private cars. Everyone wants more AC trains. But, the owner of the services, the government, isn’t listening.
  5. A mono-rail network covering congested interiors has been ready for use for a while now. The government is searching for a vendor to resume operations.

    Mumbai’s First AC Local was introduced in June 2018. Though loved by commuters, only one more had been added since then
  6. An AC Metro Line, the only one operational in Mumbai, runs between Ghatkopar and Versova, the western end of Andheri. Though expensive to use – tickets cost up to Rs.40 for a one-way journey of 11 km, it is used by 4L people every day. It has transported more than 250 million passengers within the first 957 days of its operation, the fastest time in which any metro in India has reached the milestone.[94]
  7. 11 new metro-rail corridors covering 276 km, transversing the length and breadth of the city, are under construction.  Once ready (from 2022 onwards) it will revolutionise commute within Mumbai, weaning lakhs of commuters off their personal vehicles.

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It’s evident from above arguments massive road-infra development has taken precedence over trains, the life-line of Mumbai. Expectedly, the lopsided approach has brought little relief to millions who commute everyday in Mumbai, whether by train or by road.

Why?

Massive upgradation of road infra has been a direct invitation to people to buy and use private vehicles. Given Mumbai’s hot and humid weather through the year, who wouldn’t prefer comfortable, air-condotioned commute, at least to work? As neither local trains nor BEST are able to meet these needs, people have switched to their personal cars, howsoever slow and painful the daily commute might be.

Rising incomes and ease of buying personal vehicles have also given a big fillip to changing preferences. More and more people can now afford

Rising incomes have led to explosion in vehicle purchase

to use their personal cars on a daily basis. Mumbai, in fact, would have an estimated 5-7 lakh daily car users. (Approx 6.5 lakh vehicles enter Mumbai from three entry points every day – Vashi, Mulund and Dahisar). Though most of them crib about long commute and slow-moving traffic, none will be willing to abandon the luxury of an air-conditioned car. Unless, they are offered a far cheaper alternative. 

AC Local, Metro and mono-rail between themselves can easily wean half of these commuters from their cars. Such shift will progressively de-congest our roads and make driving for the fewer who undertake it a pleasure. You already know how smoothly traffic moves during holidays, when significant number of private cars are off the road! This could be an everyday affair. And get progressively better.

The government, rightly so, is working on strengthening the rail network; the full impact of metro and monorail services should be visible probably by 2024.

However, by simultaneously announcing a coastal road project to connect South Mumbai to Malad through an over-sea bridge along the western coast, the government has taken the opposite route. The project will kill Mumbai as we know. Imagine, a colossal Rs.15,000 crores being spent to kill Mumbai. Yes, 15,000 crores! We know from experience, the cost will continue to escalate, may easily cross Rs.25,000 crores by the time the project hits the finish line! 

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Why the coastal road will kill Mumbai?

  1. It encourages more private vehicles. Once off the the coastal road, these vehicles will congest the rest of the city. All the gains we get from Metro will be wiped out.
  2. The construction is bound to cause irreparable ecological damage, destroying trees, mangroves and sensitive water resources. A petition against it has been upheld by Mumbai High Court. So further work has been stopped, thankfully.
  3. The bridge will stand like an eye-shore across what’s is probably the only admirable landscape Mumbai has, its coast and beaches. Lakhs of people along with their families throng the coast and beaches to enjoy the sea, especially the sun-set and cool breeze. Now, our view will be permanently obstructed  by an ugly bridge. Argh!
  4. The project is bound to shoot up pollution. Forever! First by increasing congestion off the coastal road. And second, by contaminating sea-breeze with vehicular fumes.

On the other hand, if funds meant for costal roads can be easily redeployed to replace half of our 191 local trains with AC rakes, we’ll see Mumbai make serious progress towards cleaner air and fast, comfortable commute for millions! At Rs.200 crore a piece the investment is barely Rs.19,000 crores – far lower than likely cost of constructing a coastal road. 

Without doubt, the benefits of investing in trains far out-weigh investment in coastal road. Beside directly benefiting substantial number of 70L passengers local train passengers, it will save the environment.  In fact, a focused strategy of weaning Mumbaikars from private vehicles to confortable AC trains can turn Mumbai into country’s cleanest city! And show the way to others as well. 

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A critical question remains: Wouldn’t the cars return on roads once they find the ride has become smoother and faster? 

This is quite likely. So, the government would do well to replicate Singapore’s model: make personal driving expensive. At least two to three times of what it costs today.  This will force the car users to weigh the pros and cons of driving vs. taking the cheaper, equally comfortable alternate.

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New roads only serve a fraction of city’s population, encourage purchase and use of more vehicles, leading to higher levels of pollution, not to mention the congestion. It’s a flawed model. It worked in USA (large country, three times our size, with less than quarter of our population), but failed even in China, which is larger than USA but matches our population. We fail to learn from their experience. We refuse to appreciate that Indian roads have the greatest diversity of vehicles – from cycle to large 20-tyres trucks, with pedestrians criss- crossing it anywhere they can find a place. More roads within cities will  only fuel more congestion and dirty air.

Isn’t it time we walk the phrase we are so proud to associate to Mumbai: Mumbai Meri Jaan.

 

 

 

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