Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | The traffic conundrum: speeding up to a standstill

The solution to decongesting and speeding up Mumbai lies in strengthening the public transportation system, notin spending on more road projects

If you are a regular user of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai, I’d guess you’ve seen, but not read, a particular signboard at the Bandra end. It’s electronic and it has various figures that scroll upwards pretty quickly, as if whoever put up the sign doesn’t really want or expect you to read the figures.

But the intrepid reporter in your service that I am, I have tried reading it. Whoever put up the sign had it generally right: most of it is not worth reading. One item, though, caught my eye. That was the total amount collected in tolls till 31 March 2018: 898.33 crore. After noting that figure one day, I came home and embarked on some intricate calculations. Well, maybe not so intricate, but take a look.

The Sea Link was opened on 30 June 2009. 31 March 2018 is eight years and nine months later. That’s 105 months. Take an average of 30 days per month. Divide 898.33 crore by 105, then by 30. You get 28.5 lakh, the average amount collected each day of those 105 months. How is this money collected? By cars paying a fee at one of the booths on the Bandra end of the Sea Link. That fee was 50 per crossing when the bridge opened in 2009, rose to 60 a few years later, and is now at 70. To make it simple, let’s assume the fee has remained at 50 all along. Divide 28.5 lakh by 50, and we find that 57,000 cars have used the Sea Link every day since it was opened.

Of course this is an approximation. For one thing, the toll has not remained at 50; accounting for its increase will decrease the daily number. For another, there’s a 50% concession on the return journey if you pay both fees at the same time; accounting for this will increase the number. For a third, some commuters buy monthly passes; I’m not sure how this will change the number. But my feeling is, none of these will change that 57,000 significantly.

Sounds like a lot of cars? But two things about that. One, the usage of the Sea Link has been slipping. In fact, there are reports that in 2017-18, only about 32,000 cars used it daily (bit.ly/2Re5ud0). Two, when the Sea Link was built, we were told it would transport anywhere between 100,000 and 140,000 cars daily. Note that at least, according to the language used at the time, this was not the engineered maximum capacity of the bridge—typically, substantially greater than usage—but the expected daily usage of the bridge.

Nine years on, we are left to compare 32,000 or 57,000 with 100,000 and 140,000. Whichever you choose, we’re left with a dismal conclusion: this new icon of the city, built at a cost of 1,600 crore, is serving somewhere between one-third and half of the commuters it was planned for.

Given that, should we ask questions about why it was built? About other planned icons to ostensibly serve cars, like a coastal road and a tunnel under Malabar Hill?

But we need infrastructure solutions for the traffic mess on our roads, you’ll hear said solemnly. Build this next one, you’ll hear said solemnly again, and we’ll reduce commute times by some large chunk. This is the mantra that we’ve been fed in this city forever—with the famous 55 flyovers of the middle 1990s, the Tulsi Pipe Road flyovers, the Sea Link and the East Coast Freeway. We heard the same when the Prime Minister was in the city this week to do the bhoomipujan for the coastal road to connect Kandivli to Nariman Point: the hoardings proclaimed that this project was “speeding up Mumbai".

Through all this, one thing has remained undiminished: commute times. A friend used to drive me from Bandra to Flora Fountain during the morning rush hour in 1992-93, and it invariably took between 1 and 1.5 hours. Do it today in rush hour—or check on Google Maps if you like—and it invariably takes between 1 and 1.5 hours. A quarter-century on, the same time for the same commute.

There are ways to try to understand this.

In 2000, the government of Maharashtra asked Prof. S.L. Dhingra of IIT Bombay’s Transportation Systems Engineering Group to study traffic congestion on the Haji Ali—Marine Drive stretch, an already notorious bottleneck, and look for solutions. He was actually asked to consider five alternatives: First, do nothing. Second, a long flyover over Tardeo. Third, a long flyover over Pedder Road. Fourth, long flyovers over both Pedder Road and Tardeo. Fifth, three (smaller) flyovers over junctions on the Tardeo-Nana Chowk route.

Dhingra concluded that the Pedder Road flyover was the best option of these five. There was an important caveat, which I’ll come to. But the study made some interesting observations. Like: about 60,000 cars travel on Pedder Road every day. Like: each of those cars carries 1.75 people.

Given that Pedder Road has not changed substantially since 2000, it’s a good assumption that those numbers have not changed substantially since either. In particular, if we take the 57,000 figure for daily use of the Sea Link and multiply by 1.75, we find that just about 100,000 people have travelled on the Sea Link every day in the years since it was built. Let’s make a rather generous assumption: that similar numbers today use the other three north-south road arteries—Tulsi Pipe, Eastern Freeway, LJ Road. So we have 400,000 people who commute by car every day. In a city filled with commuters, is 400,000 a significant fraction of them?

Only if you pay no attention to the city’s suburban trains. How many trains arrive at Churchgate in a day? Let’s assume they arrive every four minutes, on average. In an hour, that’s 15 trains. (Western Railway alone runs about 1,000 suburban trains every day, so 15 is actually an underestimate. But never mind). Each 12-car train is supposed to carry about 2,200 people, though during rush hour, the load can reach 6,000. To keep our calculations simple, let’s take an average of 5,000 commuters on each rush hour train. That is, about 75,000 commuters alight in Churchgate every hour during rush hour. The numbers for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) are similar, so that’s 150,000 people arriving in south Mumbai every hour.

Call this an approximation, which it is; and there are factors that will change some of these numbers somewhat. Still, there’s no hiding the simple story they tell: many more commuters (150,000) arrive in South Mumbai by train in one hour than the number that travels by car on the Sea Link (100,000) all day. In just three hours during the morning rush, the trains ferry many more people (450,000) than all four road arteries do (400,000) all day.

Note that we’ve not even started accounting for bus ridership. It has been falling for some years, but the city’s bus system still carries about 2.8 million people every day (bit.ly/2QJ4NsI).

Compare 2.8 million to the 400,000 that we’ve estimated cars carry every day.

Forgive all the numbers, but together they tell the larger but still simple story: the great majority of this city’s commuters travel by train and bus. In 2000, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) estimated that majority at 88% (bit.ly/2LyJapz)—which, as my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest, is not likely to have fallen significantly in the 18 years since. What’s more, few from that majority are using the Sea Link.

So let’s ask some questions: if the great majority of Mumbai’s commuters does not use the Sea Link, in what sense does it address Mumbai’s commuting headaches? If the Sea Link is not even serving as many cars as it was designed to do, for whatever reason, what have we accomplished by building it? Why are the needs of 88% of the city’s commuters ignored?

There’s plenty more to discuss here, including the invariably overlooked pedestrians in this city (ever wonder why there isn’t a pedestrian bridge over the point where the Sea Link meets Worli?). But I’ll end with that caveat I mentioned: While choosing the Pedder Road flyover, Dhingra’s report also explained that if the city was serious about solving its traffic conundrum, the five alternatives were themselves wrong-headed. As my friend, the transportation analyst Sudhir Badami, once remarked (bit.ly/2UY7Zzn): the report “strongly recommended that the public transportation system be strengthened, which would help reduce the road congestion all over Mumbai."

Think of that when you hear about a bhoomipujan for still another road project that will “speed up" the city.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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