Mumbai bridge spurs debate on e-way vs mass transport- The New Indian Express

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Express News Service

There was much excitement among Mumbaikars this weekend as they celebrated the completion of the 22-kilometer Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL). It was a marathon. The longest bridge in India was finally thrown open by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, 7 years after he laid its foundation stone in 2016. With all the time overruns, it has cost a whopping Rs 18,000 crore.

The bridge will link the island city of Mumbai with the mainland at Nhava Sheva. Besides reducing travel time for long-distance commuters, it is expected to speed up the urbanisation of semi-rural enclaves around Mumbai, while helping decongest the island city.

The Prime Minister’s Mumbai visit also flagged off a major push for improving transport infrastructure in this hopelessly crowded city. Among other things, he laid the foundation stone for an ambitious 9-kilometer, Rs 8,000-crore tunnel that will link the arterial harbour road to Mumbai’s extreme southern point of Colaba.

Road network gallops

Sourav Roy

Since the NDA government took over in 2014, development of transport infrastructure has been a priority, and rightly so. Government data till October 31, last year showed the total length of national highways in the country is about 146,145 km against 91,287 km as of March 31, 2014, a robust increase of 60%. This compares well even with the China’s galloping growth of 169,100 kilometers by end 2021, which expanded 1.6 times from 65,055 kilometers in 2009.

India’s road network too is the second highest in the world after the US. In comparison, India has 6.3 million kilometres of roads to China’s 5.3 million by the end of 2021. India has done well in basic connectivity. However, the quality of roads and transportation is poor. Most roads are of two-lane configuration and in terrible shape, thereby prone to creating congestion. More important, policy is weighed in favour of passenger cars over mass, rapid public transportation.

A recent survey published last October showed 85% of Indian commuters using public transport faced serious problems and felt it was inadequate. The survey conducted by Tummoc, a public transit app, covering 50,000 commuters spread over 21 cities, revealed that as many as 44% felt there was heavy over-crowding; and 28% felt harrowed because of unreliable timings. Poorly maintained transport was another big issue among respondents.

Growing passenger vehicle sales of four and two-wheelers show increasing middle-class affluence. Fiscal 2023 saw booming sales of 3.9 million units, an increase of 27% over the previous year. For the current fiscal and beyond, car pundits are telling us the growth will moderate, but we will still see 6-8% more cars and two-wheelers being added on over the next two years.

Skew towards cars

While these are important signals of growth at the top, mass transportation – buses, and suburban rail services, receive little attention and money. The skew against use of public transport has in fact gotten worse over the years in inverse proportion to the auto boom. Compared to the 60-80% of passenger trips across major cities accounted for by public transport in 1994, by 2020, the share of public transport use had fallen to about 35%.

An A.T. Kerney report on urban transportation had concluded that in most cities, the size of municipal and private bus fleets had remained flat or even turned negative. No prizes for guessing who is pushing the case of private, car transportation! The auto companies’ PR machinery is entirely geared to marketing the comforts and advantage of personnel ownership of cars.

Yet progressive city planning the world over has proven that good bus connectivity is the answer to both commuter comfort and last-mile connectivity. Despite the data, Mumbai’s famed BEST municipalized fleet has depleted from nearly 4,500 buses 5 years ago to currently around 3,100, much to the chagrin of lakhs of harrowed commuters.

In terms of congestion, a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows one bus-full of commuters takes 20 cars off the streets. An efficient and comfortable suburban rail and bus network will incentivize thousands of car-commuters to park at home and switch to public transport.

The growth of road networks too is skewed towards high-speed corridors and the ‘car culture’. There has been a near 10-fold increase in the length of high speed corridors from 353 km in 2014 to 3,106 km in 2023; and another 9,000 km of access controlled corridors are under various stages of implementation. Capital expenditure on building roads has increased nearly 5 times from Rs. 51,204 crore in 2013-14 to Rs. 2,41,028 crore in 2022-23.

No one can grudge this. But there has to be a parallel spread of funds to repair and develop crumbling roads in backward areas and urban interiors to ease the travel pains of ordinary people.Let’s sample Mumbai’s 22-km trans-harbour link. To use the hassle-free bridge, a one-way ticket costs Rs 250. How many rural folk entering Mumbai can afford the luxury by choice? Or, then is it only for the sports-car-zipping glitterati?

From a functional point of view, as Mumbai’s retired think-tank policeman P.S. Pasricha commented: What is the point of speeding across the harbour bridge in 20 minutes, and then getting stuck for hours at the Mumbai end in pot-holed, bumper-to-bumper traffic?  What is required is a new vision that will give priority to clean and safe public transportation over private, car traffic.

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