Mumbai's coastal road project: An end to traffic woes?

The megapolis is choking on traffic and the manner in which the government rolls out the coastal road project will determine whether large public infrastructure projects will revive the city


Geetanjali Minhas | February 21, 2015

#mumbai   #mumbai traffic   #urban transport   #mumbai coastal road   #coastal road project  

A   city is like a human body. The roads are its arteries. The moment one of them gets clogged up the urban  flow starts to choke slowly. 
 Mumbai’s arteries are so choked that the city’s transport is just minutes away from having a heart attack of fatal proportions. The city’s planners, like super-specialty doctors, are suggesting an urgent surgical intervention, a bypass if one may extend the human analogy. It’s called the coastal road and will connect the city’s old heart of Nariman Point to its new buzzing suburban areas of Kandivali.

Like all drastic interventions, the proposal has sent the civil society and policy circles into a cacophonic tizzy. Is it a road to the future, as some are saying, or a road to nowhere, as others are claiming? The correct answer may well make a difference to the city choking to death on its vehicles.

The Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra  has put its might behind the project, at least for the moment. The project report by STUP Consultants is expected to be ready soon and the final approval is expected to come from the environment ministry after the amendment of its 2011 notification that prohibits construction at least up to 500 metres from high tide line at sea fronts.

The road is supposed to be constructed within a timeframe of five years. The '10,000 crore project will be funded primarily from funds generated as premium for fungible floor space index (FSI) from real estate developers. The city of Mumbai sees 10 million people travelling back and forth from their homes to their places of work and leisure or anything in between. Almost 70 percent use public transport, which is basically the rapidly aging BEST buses and the suburban rail networks.

The slightly-over-35 km coastal road is expected to make the ride from Nariman Point in south Mumbai to Kandivli in the north of the city just a 40-minute affair.

Currently, during peak hours, from 8 am to 12 pm and from 5 pm to 9 pm, the journey takes close to two hours. Speaking to Governance Now former municipal commissioner Subodh Kumar, who was also the chairman of the joint technical committee that brought out the Coastal Road Report in 2011, said, “We require extra road space and length as Mumbai’s population will increase to 30 million in the next decade. This will lead to an increase in the number of vehicles both for personal and public transportation. Cities that think small shrink in time and that is happening to Mumbai.”

Several experts, transport planners and think tanks feel that the city desperately needs to ramp up its road infrastructure, and the coastal road should be seen as the first step towards it. “The coastal road will improve the quality of life. An average person spends almost four hours travelling from home to work and back every day. Like every city in the world that has ring road connectivity, you need to build infrastructure of a global city to cope with the present demand,” said Narendra Nayar of Bombay First, a think tank that is actively working towards creating an autonomous framework for city governance. “Time is of essence today. Unless public transport improves, a car becomes a need and not an option,” said Nitin Dossa, executive chairman of the Western India Automobile Association.

In terms of world standards, the city of Mumbai is road deficient with just about 2,000 km of roads. Singapore, a comparable coastal city that actually had an inferior road infrastructure to Mumbai four decades back, today has over 3,500 km and a public transportation system and a managed private vehicle ownership that’s considered one of the best in the world. As per the latest regional transport authority figures, Mumbai has 2.5 million vehicles, including close to 8,00,000 cars and 1.4 million two-wheelers. There has been a four-fold jump in comparison to the 1991 figures. To top it up, close to 1,50,000 vehicles enter the city daily. Between 2002 and 2012, there has been a
90 percent increase in car registration. The coastal road will be used by over 14,000 vehicles per peak hour, per direction (north-south and south-north). It will also have connecting points into the city’s interior roads every 1.5 km, making it an attractive proposition for non-peak time users. “Public transport like buses and taxis will also use the road and with a dedicated lane on either side for BRT, unlike the Bandra-Worli sea link that buses cannot use, the coastal road is for common man to enable faster travel,” additional municipal commissioner SVR Srinivas told Governance Now.

Currently, 45 percent of the daily trips are made on trains, and, quite justifiably, Mumbai is known as the Indian example of how an efficient suburban rail network can be managed and run. Interestingly, only 7 percent of the passenger trips are made by cars, and slightly above 16 percent by two-wheelers, indicating that while Mumbaikars are buying personal vehicles at an increasing rate, they are not necessarily using them for daily transportation needs. Of course, there is another side to the story that when private vehicles do come out they occupy close to 90 percent of the road space. Over 22 percent use the bus network and the remaining walk or cycle. The coastal road is expected to increase the number of people using the bus network, thereby pushing up fleet utilisation and revenues for BEST, while also creating pressure for better services and more space efficiency  and superior buses.

For several transportation experts the coastal road also makes sense since the Mumbai Metro is falling short on its promise. “Metro I carries approximately 12,000 persons per hour/per direction with three-minute frequency. As per DPR, Metro II and III will provide a capacity of 72,000 persons per hour north-south, whereas the requirement as on today is for 1,80,000 persons per hour and will go up in the coming years while the train capacity will remain as designed for 72,000 persons originally,” said urban and transport analyst Sudhir Badami. “At '40, metro is the cheapest fare with its peculiar advantage of east-west connectivity. No metro in the world is self-sustaining.

Can the city afford subsequent metros which will have higher fare and require subsidies? Where will the money come from?” Several experts and civil society organisations working on mobility solutions for people recommend that building of public transport infrastructure must follow a specific yet a differentiated framework so that roads fit in with the overall context and mix of public and private transport options. “Roads have to be built around three principles: cover the entire city with road network, no fast roads inside city due to pedestrians (road width should not exceed 40 metres and speed 40 kmph) and dedicated bus lane for arterial roads,” said Madhav Pai, director of

Environment angle

City environmentalists are apprehensive, and on genuine grounds, that the coastal road project will have a major environmental impact as the fragile mangrove ecology of the city will be lost for good. One of the reasons identified by the Chitale committee for the July 26, 2005 flooding of Mumbai was the rapid destruction of mangroves that used to act as a natural check dam during high tides and heavy rains. The government seems to be taking such concerns seriously and a study on the ecological impact of the coastal road will be done by the Mumbai transformation support unit (MTSU), which is a think tank of the government run national institute of oceanography, Goa. The report is expected to be submitted by May-June.

“There will be some impact on the coastal ecology. Today, however, without taking a rigid stand we do have the means and methods of rectifying impacts caused by earlier projects like the Back Bay Reclamation to create and enhance ecological climate on areas of mangroves where bridges on stilts are expected to come up,” said Sulakshna Mahajan who is a transport analyst and member of the MTSU. “Mangroves also have the ability to grow back naturally, and there are ways by which the process of growing mangroves can be enhanced. The unique beach ecology will not be affected by the project.”

Environmentalist Darryl D’Monte, however, is not so sure. Recounting his own experience during the construction of the Bandra-Worli sea link, he said, “We tried to re-grow mangroves on the Bandra side but that didn’t happen.” Conservationist Debi Goenka feels that the coastal road will increase noise and air pollution and will lead to a crash in property prices of buildings and houses – a point of view that is hotly contested by Nayar who says there is no evidence to show that the coastal road will increase air and noise pollutions. “Actually, pollution will decrease in the residential areas because the road will create a massive decongestion allowing the traffic to be dispersed,” he said.

Rakesh Kumar, chief scientist at the national environment engineering research institute (NEERI), said that the ecology of the area where land is being reclaimed or filled up will change, leading to a disruption of fish breeding, which happens in shallow waters near the shore.

“Fish may not die and after a few years it may come back to its normal course. Bridges on stilts will not harm fish but fillings on high tide lines will spoil fisheries in these areas. Even on the Bandra side of the sea link the tide and sea current on the land filled areas changed because of which Dadar beach got eroded and does not exist anymore,” he said. Kumar, however, said projects like the coastal road are needed to revive the city of Mumbai and there should be processes and systems associated with the project construction and monitoring to mitigate erosion and sea level changes. “Changes in water bodies always impact surrounding areas because the water has to spread elsewhere. If the coastal road does not harm coastal ecology I see no harm in the project,” he added.

Mahajan is also confident that the project will give the city the much needed opportunity to develop a nuanced framework to deal with crucial and urgent public infrastructure projects that will necessarily have a larger environmental and ecological impact. “If we handle the project sensitively through experts we can make it as a showcase project and develop a distinct approach to similar projects. A sensitive leader will have to implement it and not rely on the usual engineering approach,” she said. “I am suggesting that the project be taken up as a multidisciplinary project and not as a transport or engineering project. Taking care of design, detailing and approach right at the beginning will save costs at a later stage to correct the damage already done. In such a scenario, if the government starts changing its approach with any due process, people must start asking questions.”

Road sense

Like several major global cities, Mumbai is also caught between the devil and deep sea debate of whether roads that are meant for public transportation are being gobbled up by cars and private vehicles. Transport experts said by design public infrastructure should be for mixed use. In London, for instance, with transit-oriented development (TOD) higher floor space index (FSI) is allowed near railway lines. No parking is allowed near such areas and people use public transport. The city has succeeded in reducing the number of cars by 12 percent in the last 10 years and has increased bus usage by 60 percent. Singapore has different areas for residential and commercial use and levies congestion tax. Additional municipal commissioner SVR Srinivas explained, “There are limitations to adding space to existing roads because of properties on either side. Even though every year BMC widens and refurbishes roads it does not add adequate capacity, as over 500 vehicles are registered every day.”

“Designs have to be made for mixed use. We have to accept the fundamental rationale that we have get people to stop buying and using cars and increase public transport,” said Pai. Professor Emeritus SL Dhingra of IIT Bombay, who was part of the team that created the master plan for Mumbai, said that the coastal road may serve as a good tourist attraction and can improve mobility with high occupancy vehicles. “During disasters and for ambulances it can be very helpful. Cars with four persons should be encouraged and those with a single person should be charged high congestion tax. After providing a good alternative public transport system like the metro, the government can bring in congestion tax,” he said. Making a case for underground development to generate revenue for the space-starved city he said that in Dubai the planners decided to go 18 km underground and develop three floors of 30,000 square metres under each metro station. “This extra space generated a large amount of money to construct another Metro. Why is our municipal corporation not thinking innovatively?”

Several experts are of the view that the design of the coastal road project has to be improved before implementation. “Bus has relevance only if it provides last-mile connectivity and there is habitation and commercial activity on both sides of the road. On a freeway like the coastal road, a bus does not have to stop. If the bus stops only at two ends, having a BRTS does not have any purpose,” said economist and transport expert Ashok Datar. “Having 22 connecting points on the coastal road is a good idea but the city’s internal roads are already very crowded. With existing bottlenecks, handling new chokepoints will be crucial, as any connecting point on the coastal road will cause severe traffic jams.”

The civic body does not plan to impose a toll on the coastal road as congestion is causing a loss of '600 crore to the city. “Having a toll on the coastal road will be very difficult and also lead to traffic congestion. With sufficient money, economically our internal rate of returns is very good but we are working on other ways of getting revenue. We are not taking it as a business proposition but as an investment in infrastructure. Besides, the project is valuable as it will create 100 hectares of open spaces,” said Srinivas. Datar disagrees with this logic. “In a space-starved city it is bad economics and bad ethics not to charge toll for a road like the coastal road which will be used mostly by cars. Toll must be charged to cars and not buses and that would be true support for public transport,” said Datar. “The money collected from toll can take care of the loss of BEST. The coastal road should only have 2+2 lanes. Electronic toll collection is very efficient and can be applied to all vehicles except buses. A toll greater than '60 will deter people from using cars and lead to low traffic volume.



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