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October 30, 1998


E-Mail this story to a friend Darryl D'Monte

Bombay's roads to nowhere

A World Bank team has recently left Bombay, apparently satisfied with the way the Maharashtra government is proceeding with the second phase of its Mumbai Urban Transport Project. Its earlier refusal to fund the Rs 35 billion scheme revolved around the state government's failure to set up the Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation, a joint venture with the Indian Railways. The cost of the scheme is now Rs 64.33 billion, of which Rs 42.5 billion will be a Bank loan.

As a city which is poised to become the second most populous in the world around the year 2010, the choice of urban transport is an issue which concerns all developing countries. Bombay has a unique public transport system, in which no fewer than 86 per cent of the population travels by train or bus. However, instead of doing everything in its power to strengthen these services, the Maharashtra government is augmenting its road network by erecting as many as 50 flyovers, which will primarily benefit private motorists.

There is reason to suspect that the 50 flyovers, all of which are on schedule, are a way of operating hand-in-glove with contractors. During its recent trip, the World Bank team expressed some misgivings about these, which incurred the wrath of officials. R C Sinha, who heads the state Road Development Corporation, went on record as alleging that the Bank did not possess the requisite experience to question this Rs 12 billion expenditure. He believed that the team was frustrated because the Maharashtra government was going ahead with a project of this scale without its approval!

All over the world, transport experts are coming round to the view that the car is the biggest nuisance on the roads: they are dirty (60 per cent of Bombay's air pollution is caused by vehicles), noisy, dangerous and block space, whether stationary or mobile, which would otherwise be available for public transport and pedestrians. Every day in Bombay, there are now 800,000 vehicles, 4,000 trucks, 300 milk tankers and 400 trucks with perishables negotiating the roads. As a consequence, the average speed of vehicles, which was 20 km per hour in 1993, has slowed down to 12 kmph last year and threatens to crawl at 2 kmph in 2001!

This negates the very use of cars. While they promise personalised, efficient and comfortable conveyance, once more and more people use a car, it takes longer and longer to reach one's destination. Elsewhere in the world, experts are putting curbs on cars. In the square mile that constitutes "The City," London's international finance centre, no one takes cars to work and every destination can be reached on foot in 15 minutes.

The most ruthless in this regard is Singapore, which auctions car permits. Every owner has to pay a hefty fee which sometimes may exceed the cost of the car; he has also to confirm that he has parking space for it. Besides, there are fees to be paid to enter the central business district. Of course, this is backed up by excellent public transport.

An even better example, as far as poor cities are concerned, is Curitiba, a town in Brazil, which is world-renowned for its virtually universal bus transport. It has planned its city in such a way that buses ply continuously and unhindered at a nominal price.

For Bombay to turn its back on this global experience and create additional facilities for motorists, virtually pampering them, is a grave mistake. Wheel taxes have not gone up for 60 years, even while bus fares have risen very nearly a hundred-fold. Apart from flyovers, there is an even more hare-brained scheme to build two elevated driveways from Haji Ali to Nana Chowk and from JJ Hospital to the Museum, which will literally raise the pollution and decibel level of traffic.

In fact, this appears a thinly-disguised attempt to substitute the much-derided West Island Freeway, which Los Angeles architects first recommended in 1962. The idea was to construct freeways along the west and east coasts, not realising that this would serve a microscopic minority of the population and there would be nowhere for cars to go, once they entered the city centre. Such schemes now infringe the coastal zone regulation, which is possibly why the elevated routes are being resorted to.

While it is one thing to oppose additional facilities for cars, how else can a city like Bombay augment its transport services? The second phase of the World Bank scheme envisages additional rail lines, east-west city connections and more trains, which is what Bombay really needs. Probably, there is no city in the world of this magnitude where so many commuters depend on local trains to reach their offices -- equal to the entire population of Singapore! The planners are also considering an underground railway, which was proposed nearly three decades ago. It was given up not only because of the cost but because it was assumed to be not feasible technically, given Bombay's propensity to flood during the monsoons.

However, more sophisticated technology now may exist to take care of such eventualities. A private consortium headed by Tata Consultancy Services has in fact resurrected the project, proposing a 25-km-long line from Kurla to Colaba. It is now estimated to cost Rs 65 billion. Experts should also look at the possibility of constructing railway lines above existing tracks on the existing central and western tracks. This would not, unlike an underground system, entail huge excavation and occupy additional space. There is also sufficient land available along the Mumbai Port Trust road, which runs along the city's north-south axis and is now severely under-utilised.

Marine transport is yet another alternative which deserves serious consideration. While it may not replace rail and road, it can certainly supplement these. Private operators are considering providing a service between Borivli in the western suburbs to Nariman Point, which would only take 20 minutes and there would be bus connections either way. There are boats which can take 1,100 passengers. It would be expensive, but eliminate 4,000 cars a day along the west coast and cater to those who share taxis today. Operators believe that with more sophisticated craft available, the service need not shut down for more than 15 roughest monsoon days. There is the added advantage of being able to transport cargo by barges along the east coast.

Last, but by means least, is the greater efficiency of the bus service, which is widely recognised to be the best in the country, but can barely cope with the tremendous pressure. The introduction of air-conditioned buses on point-to-point services should ease the demand for cars and taxis. Other innovations -- which are applicable to trains as well -- is to reconfigure the seating so that standing passengers are given more room. Buses could move along circular routes in the suburbs and drop commuters to the nearest point on arterial roads, where faster and bigger vehicles could whisk them to the city. As in Bangkok, which has about the worst road traffic in the world (after Lagos, apparently), there could be a special lane for buses to move against the flow of traffic on the opposite side of main roads.

But all of this has one caveat. Unless experts devise means of curbing the use of cars, any attempt to introduce an element of sanity in an urban transport system will be doomed to failure. This encompasses a gamut of measures, like higher taxes, parking fees and anti-pollution penalties. In Europe, very many cities are declaring areas in city centres out of bounds for traffic, which benefits pedestrians and shops alike. Asian cities ought to be tailor-made for bicycles, rather than cars, but even Beijing is witnessing a rapid motorisation of traffic. Everything must be done to boost public transport, particularly in the Asian context, where a larger proportion of the population is young and cannot drive.

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