Friday, March 21, 2008

Are Mumbai's planners looking at Bangalore?

Sudhir Gota's excellent, detailed and still simple post on Bangalore (link via the sustran group) is a must-read, if only for the photos. While I've visited Bangalore a few times, I've never stayed there. Via blogs, and a couple of friends, I'd heard of the traffic chaos in the green city. I'd assumed it was because of fly-overs and such-like. But there's clearly more to it. Read Sudhir's post to get a sense of how bad urban planning can make life hell for it's residents.

While Bangalore is now facing the consequences of a car-friendly Government urban policy (i.e. priority for roads over rail, buses, etc.), Mumbai has been seeing it for time immemorial. In all the debates and controversies over the Peddar Road Flyover and the Bandra-Worli-Nariman Point Sea Link, not even half the attention has been given to transport systems from the Metro to bus rapid-transport systems.

There's a thought process at work here goes like - more roads = less traffic. Now, I'm not an urban planner, but in Mumbai, 88% of commuters use public transport. So by any logic, any policy that focuses on flyovers and sea-links over rail and bus has to be, at best, questionable.

And yet, for as long back as I can remember, the conventional way of measuring Mumbai's infrastructure progress is by asking how many new roads and flyovers are getting added. Which suits politicians well because roads and flyovers are easier to build and become vote-winning propositions. Yet, I doubt this line of logic is ever going to change.

And yet, any Mumbaikar can tell you that traffic in Mumbai is just going haywire. Sure, that's always been the case, but that's not the point. The development and expansion of the Western and Eastern Express Highways were much-needed relief for the far-flung suburbs. But picture this for a moment - with all the development in Central Mumbai (i.e. Lower Parel and the surrounding Mill Land areas), where are the roads to support them? For all the hype and hoopla, the Bandra Worli Sealink will not really solve the problem because it will offload all the vehicles at Love Grove Junction on one side and the Bandra Reclamation junction on the other. What about dispersal from there?

The issue at the core is much larger than a sealink or a road or a flyover or a Worli, Bandra or whatever. The issue is the thinking. Let me put that in perspective for you. Forty-six years ago, in 1962, our urban planners thought of sealinks to connect the island city to the suburbs. In 1968, the planners thought of underground rail. Till date, nothing has been achieved.

We're in 2008 now. All the phases of the Metro will be functioning anywhere between 2011-2012 (best case). The MUTP should have expanded the rail capacity by then and - hopefully - some kind person would have consented to the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS). My guess is with that, we should have taken care of our current requirements.

But here's the thing. Way back in the 70s, something called New Bombay was thought of. A few years back, the Special Economic Zones were mooted by the Ambanis. Till date, nothing meaningul has happened on either front. Almost all of the expansion and development in the last few decades has remained concentrated in Mumbai (with some suburbs like Andheri and Malad opening up to the services sector).

Question - why have we not thought of creating more Mumbai's around Mumbai?

It's that simple really in the end. The more you build, the more they will come. People, cars, etc. Look at how it's wreaking havoc in Bangalore. Our planners probably knew this in the 60s and the 70s. But nothing was done.

I don't think the planners and the politicians can take that same risk now. Else Mumbai 2050 (with a population exceeding Australia and perhaps many other Western countries by then) would make our current Mumbai look like Utopia.