Unjamming the megapolis

Commuting is arguably the Mumbai's biggest pain point. And it is getting worse. Is there a way out?

Updated - November 17, 2021 06:18 am IST

Published - March 20, 2016 08:44 am IST - Mumbai

Mumbai has unique commuter transport issues. Since we’re an island, space is limited, and real estate is prohibitively expensive. The city’s ‘centre’ is at the southern end of a narrow strip of land, which has meant that people need to all travel the length of the city in one direction at one time to get to work. New business districts in other parts of the island city — Lower Parel, Bandra Kurla Complex, the Andheri-Goregaon stretch, Powai — and new employment opportunities in adjacent metropolitan areas have made a lot of difference to this scenario in the last couple of decades, but we are still largely a city that commutes south every morning and back north in the evening.

The main commuting routes stretch north to south. The triple backbones of the city are the commuter railway lines: the Western Railway (WR), and the Central Railway’s (CR) main and harbour lines. Arterial roadways mirror the railways: the Eastern Express and Western Express highways connect the city to the northern suburbs and the hinterland beyond, and the Sion-Panvel road branches off to the east, through Navi Mumbai, joining the national highway system there. Until recently, east-west commuting was only via very congested link roads. ‘Fixing’ this megacity’s commuting woes must look at all the options currently available, and evolve holistic solutions.

First, some statistics.

Approximately 5 lakh workers walk to work every day; Mumbai is one of the leading cities in the world for pedestrian commuting.

Public transport — WR and CR trains and BEST buses — accounts for 66% of motorised trips Mumbaikars take every day (down from 78% in 2000).

Commuters make 78 lakh rail trips per day. Ours is the third-most used commuter rail system in the world, after Shanghai and Tokyo.

The Metro Phase I provides for 2.7 lakh trips. The contribution of the first phase of the monorail project has been negligible so far.

Commuters make 31 lakh trips per day on the bus system (down from a peak of 44 lakh in 2008-09).

Other motorised journeys are spread between taxis, autorickshaws (in the suburbs) and private two- and four-wheelers.

Water transport is limited to ferries that connect Bhaucha Dhakka and Gateway of India with JNPT, Uran, Rewas and Mandwa, and crossings between Malad and Gorai. Hovercraft services from Navi Mumbai made a brief appearance in the 1990s, but soon went out of business.

The problems

Mumbai’s suburban rail systems were advanced when they were built and, even now, are extremely inexpensive to use. Our Mumbai locals operate at an average speed of 32 kmph (slow trains) and 39 kmph (fast trains), speeds which have not improved much over the last 15 years.

For the last three years, the CR’s main line and the WR have lengthened trains, using 12-coach rakes (the harbour line still uses 9-coach rakes). Even in the 12-car trains, with 33% more space, congestion has not eased dramatically: from 16 persons per square metre, it is now at just over 12 persons per square metre.

Frequency has stagnated at a three-minute gap between trains. There are no AC locals, or even coaches, on the suburban system. And the number of deaths are still at an unacceptable level of 10 per day. Nevertheless, people prefer to use trains, especially for distances longer than 6 km.

Mumbai’s population is growing at 0.5% per annum, making it one of the slowest-growing cities in terms of population. The number of private vehicles, however, has grown much faster, especially post-liberalisation, and with the easy availability of finance. Over the last decade, growth has accelerated at 7% per annum for cars and 12% per annum for two-wheelers. The need for more road space has increased dramatically. New flyovers, and link roads such as the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road and the Santa Cruz-Chembur Link Road, have lured more private vehicles into the commute cycle, resulting in more and longer traffic jams. And parking by all kind of vehicles on public roads has increased six-fold during the last 15 years.

This road congestion is the principal cause for a decline in the contribution of buses. The average speed of buses has gone down by about 20% since 2004-5 when the highest performance of buses was reported (slower than the decline in speed for four- and three-wheelers, which travel 15% slower). These averages, however, hide the much larger slowdown during peak hours on several stretches.

Faster, more frequent, more comfortable trains

Our trains run much below optimum speeds. We can improve efficiency just by speeding them up, increasing frequency, and increasing the number of trains. But first we must improve safety. Essential for that is the fencing off of the railway lines, which Central and Western Railway have only done over some stretches, and even there we see breaks in the walls, and people crossing tracks. And there are slum areas adjoining the tracks at several locations, within railway land, which means that trains must go even slower there for safety.

Once fencing and encroachment is taken care of, we can then take these essential steps:

Reduce gaps between trains to at least 2.2 minutes. This can be accomplished by a complete switchover to electronic signalling systems.

Increase the speed of the fast trains by 20% and slow trains by 10%.

Experiment with cyclical time tables, that is, all trains become fast trains, but skipping different stations. Each station gets a train every nine minutes.

Improve passenger dispersal in stations to cope with higher passenger density generated by these measures.

For train journeys under one hour, reduce seating capacity by 20%, and increase standing capacity by 30%.

Together, these measures should increase the carrying capacity of the entire system by 40%.

An additional measure that will increase revenue for the railways: replace first class coaches with air conditioned coaches. AC coaches cost 40% more, but can earn 300% more than conventional first class coaches, even if standees are strictly limited. Fares should be three times current first class fares, and twice the fare of an AC bus for an equivalent distance. The value of high speed, comfort and reliability will, for many passengers, far exceed the higher fare, and the AC local will become a very competitive alternative to long-distance buses, and even to taxis and private cars (which are anyway limited by low road traffic speeds). Lower fares at off-peak hours would also make AC coaches attractive for leisure trips or irregular travellers. At a later stage, say in two years, we should phase in fast AC trains: one every 15 minutes, without sacrificing any regular train services.

If we improve the performance of our suburban railway systems like this, users will be willing to pay at least 100% higher fares, especially for season tickets of two-, three- or six-monthly validity.

Better than BEST

Today, BEST runs about 3,800 buses every day. On bus revenues of Rs 1,510 crore last year, the undertaking lost Rs 858 crore. This figure is more than double its losses in 2008-09, when the shortfall was Rs 411 crore. Put another way, it lost Rs 2.57 per passenger trip then to Rs 7 now. (It is not alone: bus and metro systems all over the world incur losses.) So far, its shortfall has been met mostly through charging island city customers about 16% more for its electricity, but this will not be legally permissible any more. Though it has hiked fares, BEST’s revenues this year won’t be better, because there has also been a sharp decline in passenger volumes.

BEST had 143 AC buses on the road in 2014-15. On fares from around 125 passenger trips per bus per day and their loss per trip is Rs 113 (which is more than the revenue per trip at Rs 58).

BEST’s objective should be to surpass its 2008-09 peak and achieve a steady level of 45 lakh trips a day in the next two years. This will substantially bring down annual losses by Rs 300 crore.

Buses require one square metre per passenger; a car occupies 8 to 10 square metres and, in the city, carries 1.5 persons on average. So this will also reduce congestion.

To reach this goal, and make buses a preferred choice for commuters over taxis and autos or cars, they must run faster, at a high frequency, and in a predictable manner.

Here’s how this can happen.

Replace at least 300 busses which are more than 10 years old (which means higher maintenance costs and downtime) and add another 300 new buses.

Create bus lanes; if not all over the city then at least at small but key bottleneck stretches. With fewer private vehicles, all traffic will move faster, safer and smoother. And cleaner: exhaust emissions will go down significantly. An extra benefit will be that they will attract passengers even in the afternoons and other odd hours when roads are congested. Buses will generate more revenue, while fixed costs (80%, with fuel only 20%) will remain mostly unchanged.

A section of buses (marked, perhaps, with a special symbol) which will use the many flyovers in the city, especially the longer viaducts on the CST-Sion corridor, and the SCCLR, the Eastern Freeway, and the Expressways into the suburbs. Operating at planned frequencies, with fewer stops, they would cater to the minority who currently use taxis and cars, as they would take only a little longer than the four-wheelers over longer distances at lower costs.

BEST should be more creative with special passes and season tickets and such segmented fares, to make themselves more attractive for use during off peak hours.

Bonus idea: Every day, more than 30,000 people fly in and out of the city. And almost all of them get to and from the terminals by car, taxi or autorickshaw. People even take taxis or car services to Mumbai airport from nearby cities like Pune and Nashik. If not BEST, the city’s administration should encourage private operators to run specialised (air conditioned, with room for luggage) bus services to and from the airport.

Charge for parking

Motorists in India believe that free parking is “infrastructure,” and their right. We must correct this perception. Parking is a private use of public space. It follows that it should be governed by demand and supply. This is the single most important reform that we have missed all along. We must at least make a beginning instead of postponing this simple but hard decision. Cities like London virtually finance their transport infrastructure from such “merit user fees.”

In our city, the number of cars using has doubled over the last decade, but parking on roads has increased four to six times on most roads. Almost all of it is free and undisciplined. Over 300,000 cars are parked on the city’s roads; add taxis, autorickshaws, trucks, private buses and tankers, and it’s a wonder that we still have place to move. We must bring at least 100,000 such vehicles into marked — and paid — parking lots, off the streets and out of the way of busses. Such a system will reduce the parking problem because potential car buyers will factor the cost of parking into their purchase choice.

Points to ponder

Improve efficiency of our trains by speeding them up, increasing their frequency and number. Also improve safety

Railways can generate more revenue by replacing first class coaches with AC coaches

Make buses a preferred choice for commuters. They must run faster, at a high frequency, and in a predictable manner

Free parking should not be considered a right. Parking is a private use of public space and should be governed by demand and supply

​Create and enforce the perception that it is both risky and costly to be indisciplined. Intelligent policing, imposing fines, and use of CCTVs and mobile apps can help.

About the author

Ashok Datar is the Founder Trustee of Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN) — a think tank devoted to sustainable transportation and other urban issues focusing Mumbai. A leading commentator on urban transportation issues, he was part of a High Court-appointed high powered committee to improve Mumbai’s traffic and has also served on a BRTS expert committee set up by MMRDA in 2007. He is also a founder member of `Mumbai Transport Forum’, a group of traffic analysts and activists in Mumbai.

For the complete list of stories in the Fixing Mumbai series, > click here
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