This month, the ₹17,000-crore Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) connecting Mumbai with the satellite city of Navi Mumbai, in planning since 2004, will be finally opened to the public. Also expected to launch are private water taxis between Navi Mumbai and Mumbai, reducing travel time by an hour. And if things run as per schedule, Mumbai Metro’s ambitious 33-km Aqua line, linking the southern tip of Colaba with Bandra and SEEPZ Village in the western suburbs, will be completed soon and ready for service early next year, followed by the opening of the much-hyped coastal road in February 2024.
These mega infrastructure projects, designed to decongest the existing road network and upgrade everyday commute, however, are not likely to benefit the average Mumbaikar living in the far suburbs and forced to undertake long, life-threatening journeys to the island city for work.
Babytai Kumthekar recalls the fanfare around the AC local trains when they were introduced five years ago with the promise of an efficient and comfortable daily commute. “But second-class passengers like me cannot afford the AC fare,” laments the 50-year-old who works as a domestic help in South Mumbai. “The return ticket on an AC train [₹200] costs nearly as much as a second-class monthly pass [₹300].” Mumbai’s famed suburban rail network, spread over 390 km, carries more than 8 million commuters daily, and residents like Kumthekar, who lives in Virar in Mumbai’s northern suburbs, depend on the service to get to their jobs on time.
“I wake up at 3 a.m. every day and take the 4.21 a.m. Churchgate fast train. If I miss this, I will have to go standing in the next train and also risk getting late for work.”Babytai KumthekarDomestic help
Life in the metro
Mumbai is India’s first city — urbs prima — its richest, and a bustling financial nerve centre renowned for its fast-paced lifestyle and cosmopolitan vibe. It is aspirational for millions across the country to live and make it here. Yet, the reality of life for the average Mumbaikar is filled with the dread of daily commute whether by overcrowded trains or on congested roads. It’s almost a rite of passage to run and catch a moving “local” — as the suburban trains are known — feel out of breath in an overcrowded compartment, suffocate in the soggy, humid proximity of passengers, and even lose consciousness.
The first time I travelled ‘latak ke’ — Mumbai slang for ‘hanging on for dear life on a packed local’ — my college backpack half-flying in the air and my body at a 70-degree angle out of the train, I thought I would end up in the official statistics of the 1,000-odd commuters who die every year falling off running trains in the city. My ordeal continued through college and later, work, even as I pinned my hopes on the next big transportation project aimed at alleviating everyday commuting woes. It’s a promise upon whose fulfilment every generation of Mumbaikars has grown up fantasising about.
“The new Mumbai Coastal Road Project effectively benefits a very small segment of Mumbai’s population, which has access to cars. But about 50% of the city’s population uses BEST buses and funding for that has been severely cut back. They need the latest buses, maintenance, best-in-class technologies like GPS or a time signal at every bus stop, which can be helpful to commuters to track a bus, like an Uber. More buses can be air-conditioned and app-based ticketing can be introduced so you can change routes based on demand. Also, buses should be given priority on roads. In my opinion, money should be spent on updates like this, not cars, which are a problem for everybody as they choke up the roads, and the whole city comes to a standstill.”Samir D’MonteSDM Architects
At the same time, perhaps no other metro city in the country offers as many options for mass transportation as Mumbai: a well-established suburban rail network, intercity bus system, monorail, and a still-developing metro rail, along with metered rickshaws and taxis. A host of measures such as the addition of 15-coach local trains, AC coaches, large and mini AC buses, expansion of rail routes and station capacity, construction of new roads and bridges, has attempted to streamline traffic, combat congestion and enhance connectivity.
At the end of October, the iconic red double-decker bus and the black-and-yellow Premier Padmini taxi, a constant fixture on Mumbai’s streets for decades, were phased out and substituted by the first-of-its-kind double-decker air-conditioned electronic buses and CNG-run taxis.
The eco-friendly modes are a welcome addition to an impressive array of affordable, even if horrendously congested, public transport system, but not enough for the roughly 12 million daily commuters who navigate the Mumbai Metropolitan region. With one of the highest population densities in the world, Mumbai and its infrastructure appear to be forever in catch-up mode with the rapid pace of urbanisation.
Celebrities on everyday commuting challenges in Mumbai
Affordability for all
Vedant Mhatre, 25, a public transport advocate who campaigns for sustainable and affordable transit for all, says there is no pricing rationale in the AC train fares, which are seven times higher than the base price of the average local train.
Although the AC service has been a boon for his daily commute from Dombivli to Dadar and Andheri — a distance of more than 40 km — Mhatre is concerned about its affordability in the long run given its exclusionary feature. Unlike the locals, AC trains don’t have dedicated coaches for vendors transporting their goods and only 10 reserved seats for disabled passengers, thus eliminating space for the working class and less-affluent passengers.
“AC trains are a necessity in Mumbai’s hot and humid weather, but it should not be a luxury meant only for white-collared passengers.”Vedant MhatrePublic transport advocate
More Vande Bharat services
Despite these prevalent inequalities, this year, the railway ministry announced plans to convert the existing locals into Vande Bharat-style AC trains over the next seven years.
“AC trains are a necessity in Mumbai’s hot and humid weather, but it should not be a luxury meant only for white-collared passengers,” says Mhatre, adding that the railways must lower the fares or provide subsidies to bring on board second-class commuters.
Given the limitations in land availability and capacity augmentation in the suburban rail network, he says, authorities should focus on the development of missing links in connectivity, which would be beneficial to the average commuter. Mhatre has been pivotal in launching citizen-led campaigns to lobby with the government for developing the Kalyan-Ghansoli-Vikhroli metro corridor and expediting work on the Kanjurmarg-Ghansoli-Badlapur route to ease congestion on the central lines.
Lack of cross-connectivity and interchanging stations, such as Dadar, from where one can board trains going in the Western, Central or Harbour direction, has been one of the neglected gaps in the current transport infrastructure in Mumbai.
Hitesh Surti, a production executive with a leading clothing brand, changes three trains and spends over three hours, starting from Virar, to reach his workplace 65 km away in Rabale near Navi Mumbai. He can neither afford to change his job nor his place of residence, Surti says.
“On each route, the trains are so packed that it’s almost dangerous to travel.”Hitesh SurtiProduction executive with a clothing brand
His colleague Sanchita Gharat, a textile designer, gave up her dream job with a top fashion house after only a week of tiresome commute from Kalwa near Thane to Versova, a distance of over 30 km. The Ghatkopar-Andheri metro provided easy connectivity from central to the western line, but it got exhausting for Gharat to travel two hours each way and work a nine-hour shift. “It was a great opportunity, but I had to let it go and look for options closer home. The commute and the job would leave me lifeless,” she says.
In a progressive city like Mumbai, women’s labor force participation is comparatively lower with only one-fifth of women finding employment. According to a 2021 World Bank study, lack of access to and intermittent mass transit are among the factors limiting women’s mobility, forcing many to drop out of employment or choose less-appealing alternatives.
In the last 20 years, Mumbai has made massive improvements in mobility but poor governance, lack of effective policy measures and terrible planning have kept things as they are, says Rishi Aggarwal, transport activist and director of Mumbai Sustainability Centre, a non-profit focused on improving civic amenities. The more things change the more they remain the same.
“It’s like loosening the belt to cope with obesity,” he says, quoting American urban planner Lewis Mumford. “Authorities are fixated on mega bucks, car-centric infrastructure projects or capital-intensive public transport projects like the metro and AC trains, from which politicians can earn kickbacks.”
“Politicians and transport union leaders have been hand-in-glove in dismantling BEST with reduced budgets and privatisation”Rishi AggarwalTransport activist
Aggarwal feels the dismal state of Mumbai’s transport can still be resuscitated. The ease of movement for commuters, especially those from the low-income group, needs to be at the heart of a public transit system. A unified transport authority for integrated planning and operation across the metropolitan region, introduction of congestion tax on private vehicles entering Mumbai during peak hours, surge in parking rates, procuring up to 5,000 buses and restrengthening the civic transport system are some immediate measures that could help in reducing the burden on the railways.
“Politicians and transport union leaders have been hand-in-glove in deliberately dismantling BEST [Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport] with reduced budgets and privatisation,” says Aggarwal. Between 2011 and now, BEST’s fleet has reduced from 4,700 to less than 3,000 buses, of which 1,675 are privately-owned. Shortage of buses pushed people to rely on autos and taxis for shorter rides and invest in private vehicles, resulting in a decline in ridership from 4.2 million to under 3 million. Data from a 2021 study by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority shows an alarming increase of private vehicle ownership in Mumbai from 1.37 million to 616 million between 2001 and 2017, due to overcrowding of suburban public transit, delay in implementation of potential projects and never-ending construction of transport infrastructure.
The upsurge in motor vehicles has led to perpetual congestion on the streets. Mumbai has one of the highest vehicle densities in India with 530 cars per km — five times more than Delhi — even though the city has just about 2,000 km of roads as against Delhi’s nearly 17,000 km road length.
“Roads should not just be dominated by cars but have an equitable space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, too,” says Rahul Goel, assistant professor at IIT-Delhi’s Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Centre.
As tier-2 and tier-3 cities across India gear up to develop their own modes of public transport, they can draw valuable lessons from Mumbai’s famed mass transit system. The story of the city’s growth is closely tied with the history of public transport in India which originated in 1853, when the first passenger train rolled out between Thane and Boribunder (present-day CST), transforming the destiny of Mumbai and marking the first step for the Indian Railway, the country’s greatest public transit system.
Mumbai’s changing skyline is a testimony of its ambition to transform into a world-class metro. It must build on the legacy of the past by ensuring inclusionary public transport which grants equal access and space to the ordinary citizen, instead of turning their commute into a life-risking trap, a la Squid Game.
Suburban railway - more than 8 million
BEST bus services - 4.2 million
Metro rail - 5,50,000
Monorail - 12,000-18,000
The writer is an independent journalist and researcher based in Mumbai.