Mumbai traffic: Let’s use some simple math

Crores and crores are being spent on projects that benefit only a few – and incentivise further congestion of the city

Ashok Datar | November 21, 2023

#Mumbai   #transport   #infrastructure   #urban governance   #governance  
(Photo Courtesy: Ashok Datar)
(Photo Courtesy: Ashok Datar)

Two level of roads not enough, BMC to have triple traffic jams through underground junctions
There is no shortage of short-sighted traffic experts who believe that creating more vertical space (either above or below the level) in already overcrowded and congested cities will be counterproductive henceforth. The BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has proposed that several high-volume junctions on the eastern and western express highways should now have underpasses for crossing the junction in a seamless fashion. The objective behind this move is laudable but if we understand the current traffic levels at the junctions, which are very high indeed, it won’t permit this luxury. This can be statistically found through the traffic count at each of the proposed junctions during peak hours. We have observed that green signal seldom clears the entire flow of traffic from one direction before it turns red. There is a sizeable backlog which gets swollen when in the red part of the signal cycle, a lot of additional traffic gets added and this vicious cycle continues at least during all peak hours and in all directions at a junction. We have observed that this continues even some less peak traffic hours too! Let BMC conduct traffic counts during all peak hrs and verify this phenomenon.

Why this expensive proposal will not provide any benefits of smoother and faster traffic?
It is seldom that the road ahead of the proposed underpass offers free road space to receive fresh traffic during the next signal cycle and so on. Such overstretched traffic is mostly due to too many (and rapidly growing numbers of) cars, taxies and autos and too few buses. If the total people in all vehicles are “redistributed” between the four-wheelers and buses, we can get some leeway for signal-free traffic. I wonder why most experts and consultants don’t count the vehicle flow at the junction at each arm during a signal cycle and find out the incidence and magnitude of backlog to be carried forward to next signal cycle. We suggest BMC publish the traffic counts at each arm of a junction in successive signal cycles and find out whether and to what extent backlog exists between the red and green parts of the cycle.

Besides this fundamental maths, we allow a lot of traffic violating (or allowed to violate in good faith and street-smartness) the sanctity of green, orange and red. We are so much used to this pattern of violation, it is difficult to eradicate it. This makes the problem worse as we eliminate the buffer which is supposed to be provided by “orange” light of a few seconds during which the Sanctum Sanctorum of the junction never gets empty (even for a half second), increasing the pressure on subsequent parts of the road and making whole effort and expenditure unproductive. Improving this discipline is far more effective than such crazy solutions. But we don’t seriously believe in any kind of traffic discipline!

Then what is the solution? Let us not forget there are many more cars waiting to be bought at the growth rate of more than 10% a year. They need to use the junctions in a compounded manner, so the stress on the junctions will increase even more. If we want traffic calming, we should understand that the limit of road space has already been crossed by the number of vehicles so the traffic stretches in longer hours – beyond the normally required traffic time. And more such “facilities” invite more people to buy and use more cars which carry in a 8 sqm vehicle (4X2) for a smaller car. Now more cars are bought in longer version like SUVs (current year purchase of longer SUVs is 68% more than last year whereas smaller 8 sqm vehicles are growing only at 10%). More and more people buy a relatively low-cost personal mobility, because parking on road and using 250 sqft of space absolutely free, which consume 4 sqm per capita (assuming 2 persons are using a car). A bus, on the other hand, with dimensions of 12x2.75 m means an area of 33 sqm within which it carries about 35 to 40 persons, i.e., each passenger takes one sq m of space compared to 4 sqm for car users.

So if we adopt bus priority methods (such as bus lane or odd/even for cars and no free parking in the city), it will make roads clear for more traffic and there will be fewer cars wasting valuable space worth Rs 1 crpre per sqm, equal to at least Rs. 25,000 crore. The city at the current level of car ownership is very obese and is getting more so. It is time that it should slim down to be in good transport health. There is no alternative, unfortunately. This simple situation is simply not understood by highly intelligent bureaucrats, ministers, politicians and thought leaders! So all the people pay this price except the VIPs.

Instead of zero-cost dieting, we choose to spend thousands of crores to make things worse?
We don’t know why MMRDA and BMC keep on spending thousands of crores in widening roads, in providing access at vertical or underground level when low cost, cheaper and healthier alternative to ‘sab ka vikas and environment ka vikas’ are available and can be proved mathematically?

Only 12% motorists use huge road space (for free) leaving little for public transport. Very few roads are meant to carry buses which require one-fifth of road space per capita. I am not against the use of cars. They serve personal mobility. But in a congested city, we must cater to requirements of road space of all citizens and find some way to allow balanced use of road space. Hence, cars should pay higher taxes as in Shanghai, London and New York, pay affordable parking fees at which demand will equal supply for road space and will help clean the smog which Mumbai has started facing. Cars and congestion are the single largest contributor to pollution in Mumbai and more and more other cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad.

BMC going in a big way to develop transport infra: Evaluate impact mathematically
BMC is now undertaking all infra projects instead of MMRDA in Maha Metro area. It is a welcome move as it will then be accountable to the elected representatives and citizen (also because BMC has money and MMRDA is getting broke!). It should develop capable cadre. Since for an indefinite period, the BMC legislative wing is dysfunctional while it is incurring huge projects, it should provide basic details through media and its website for each major projects, viz. extension of coastal road beyond Worli to Versova and to Virar, Thane Borivali underground highway project worth Rs. 16,000 crore, and Goregaon Mulund east west link projects (worth Rs. 12,000 crore) and this underground junctions projects worth Rs. 2,900 crore and if any more car-centric highway projects and as such they should generate revenue from tolls or other methods from car users since they will be little utilized, if any, by buses. As a matter of fact, such projects will generate more demand for cars in an already most congested city in the world with more than 800 cars/km of roads. If we have any illusions, we can see the performance of the coastal road (supported by Metro 3, a great public transport project) both getting operational in 2024.

To be scientific and rational, we should conduct traffic counts at peak hours on 15 major road stretches and understand in the quantitative terms the exact number/index on traffic congestion and then we conduct similar exercise, six months after coastal and Metro 3 are operational in 2025 to gauge in quantitative terms the impact on traffic congestion on those 15 acutely congested road stretches, so that we will know the true and precise impact of these mammoth projects.

This is in addition to MTHL bridge over sea to Navi Mumbai which will be operational within the next few months. Further, adding a 6th line from Khar to Borivali will also be completed. We should develop statistical techniques of measurements in reduction of traffic congestion due to these projects by counting now and in 2025 to be statistically intelligent. Its cost will be paltry Rs. 50 lakh but the knowledge of “before and after” will be immensely valuable. It is humbly suggested that so far we have not used statistical methods of measurements to evaluate impact of such huge capex running into a lakh cr! We must have something to show for this.
We should also keep track of addition to cars – both using petrol/diesel and electricity. So far electric cars and two-wheelers have achieved only 1% share of total. How long will it take to achieve a minimum of 20% penetration of EV and Hybrids? And also electric buses and more local trains – AC and non-AC due to additional pair of tracts on Western Railway and, of course, the miracle Metro 3 (and possibly another one as a gift for the election year of 2024!). But we must measure quantitatively and scientifically the traffic volumes and congestion before (now) and in 2025 on the same basis. This much we owe to our claims of being the third largest economy in the world (incidentally, we should not forget that India is already the third largest importer of oil and the fifth largest market for cars.)

Any capital investment in transport projects must be evaluated for cost-benefit – and also ‘for whom are the benefits’? Today they are mostly for cars which increase congestion, pollution and imports of oil and leave out the bottom 75% population. Let us be objective and see what huge “improvements” are taking place in the election year and measure the impact mathematically which has not been done so far. It is unfortunate that projects worth thousands of crore of rupees are, at least in the cities, leading to more congestion and beneficiaries are mostly from the top 25% population. This “underground junctions” project will certainly cost more than Rs 2,900 crore. And this money and effort will be going to waste! We don’t consider “governance” as the key criterion. Hence, we will end up spending such wasteful and negative expenditure, inviting more car owners to spread traffic jams and free parking to all over the city! Is that what we “all” want? Why not have better schools, open spaces and health rather than multi-lane roads and such seemingly seamless junctions while the traffic gets congested to a filthy level while not uttering a word of “regulated and paid parking” which will make traffic far better and earn some revenue for merit causes?

Ashok Datar is a veteran transport economist.



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