Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Maharashtra government and the municipal administration of Mumbai have just approved a coastal road along the city’s western front and the general response has been one of euphoria. Politicians across party lines are congratulating themselves and there’s elation in many sections of the public at the thought of swifter travel (80 kilometres per hour, as per official accounts) in a city plagued by peak-hour traffic congestion. And yet, for some of us in the small community advocating sustainable transport policies and infrastructure for Mumbai, this is a moment of sadness.
Having played a close role in the last decade in protecting mangroves in Mumbai, and more particularly in the Versova-Lokhandwala belt, I’m largely expected to oppose the coastal road for its environmental impact and the damage it will unleash on the mangroves in the just-mentioned belt. But environment is not the mainstay of my objection. My fundamental grouse is, and has been for the past four years, that this Rs 13,000-crore coastal road goes contrary to principles of good governance and transport planning.
I have tried communicating this objection at a number of public meetings by giving the analogy of putting the cart before the horse and using the phrase “proportionality of enthusiasm”. Those who support the road – and there are many who do so strongly – view any argument against it is as anti-development. They give the clichéd response that no progress will ever take place if we don’t allow such projects. To prove their point, they cite examples of Singapore, Chicago, London, among other cities. This, however, takes me back to my argument of putting the cart before the horse.
All these global cities didn’t just initiate fascinating road infrastructure projects that could inspire awe and convenience their users. They did so with fine institutions driving the transport planning and the investment decision-making.
Take London and Singapore, for example. Both these cities provide outstanding transportation infrastructure to their citizens and are at the cutting edge of identifying room for improvement and planning. Have they achieved this just with projects like coastal roads? Yes, Singapore has a coastal road but that is not all it has done to become the pride of the urban planning community. Why should we cherry-pick then? Why can’t we adopt the 10 other things the city-state does for transport planning? By employing Electronic Road Pricing and Certificate of Entitlement for purchase of cars, it has integrated land use planning with transport planning. All these steps are more urgently needed for Mumbai than the coastal road.
These cities recognise the well-established principle that you need high-quality institutions to guide efforts to address any human need from mobility to healthcare and education. Therefore, London has Transport for London and Singapore has the Land Transit Authority. The institution is the horse and the projects are the cart. When we develop projects like the coastal road without having any concern for developing foundational institutions first, we are in essence putting the cart before the horse. And this is what we have done for long.
Since 1995, Mumbai has added some 55 flyovers besides roads like the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road, Santa Cruz-Chembur Link Road, Bandra-Worli Sea Link and the Eastern Freeway. And yet in these 20 years, we haven’t been made any appreciable improvements in reducing travel times or traffic congestion. For the large majority still, the mobility experience remains traumatising.
In Mumbai, every investment in a large project promises the world at the start and then there’s no assessment after a decade. This is not to say that the projects don’t deliver any advantages – they do but they don’t live up to the tall promises. In the late 1990s it was declared that building flyovers on the Western Express Highway would allow peak-hour travel between Bandra and Borivali within 30 minutes. Today, the journey takes 90 minutes or more. Not a small variance. Today, the coastal road promises vehicle speeds of 80 kilometres per hour when ready. What advantages it will really deliver to the city remains to be seen.
Still, these are just the failures of the carts. What about the horse?
Since 1995 too, we have made no appreciable effort towards establishing a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority. After the launch of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission in 2005, creating a UMTA was made mandatory for every city with million-plus population to receive funding. Hyderabad was the first city to establish one. Mumbai too set up one under the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority and made a mockery of the exercise.
The UMTA was to be the guiding authority for planning all transportation infrastructures in the city. Yet the decision-making is still fragmented. We continue to parrot references to the presence of 18-odd authorities having influence over transportation in Mumbai and the disruptive lack of coordination between them. Why don’t we do something about this?
This brings me to my other argument: the proportionality of enthusiasm. Why do we display such great enthusiasm for the coastal road and such low enthusiasm for developing the right institutions? Why does the enthusiasm for the coastal road far exceed the enthusiasm for Mumbai’s other transport and traffic planning needs?
Singapore and London, which show enthusiasm for coastal roads and other road infrastructure, show proportionally far more enthusiasm for making their public transport systems world class. They take interest in quality street design and signage, enforcement of driving discipline and use of technology. They have progressive parking policies and, unlike in Mumbai, you cannot get a driving licence sitting at home there. Above all, they are extremely compassionate towards the needs of pedestrians, the elderly and the disabled. Go to any railway station on the Mumbai network or a junction on an arterial road and our low levels of compassion shine through.
The politicians in Mumbai who have been so excited about the coastal road need to be as excited about modernising the processes at regional transport offices, including the driving license tests. They need to restore the struggling, neglected public bus service and indeed feel passionately about making it the best in the subcontinent. Where is that enthusiasm?
In London, 7 million people commute by buses every day – in fact, improvement in bus services has been one of its biggest success stories in the past decade. By contrast, in Mumbai, the figure is 4 million and reducing. As people abandon the creaking public transport system and jump into cars, traffic congestion increases, which in turn becomes a pretext for prescribing the coastal road as a viable solution to improving car speeds. Our administrators have developed a fine art of using public misery to their advantage.
Yes, Mumbai needs additions to its transport infrastructure. But it is has an even greater need to develop well-functioning institutions which will guide an informed and systematic approach towards a world class mobility infrastructure.