An exploding car population is choking Mumbai’s roads and redefining the relationship between citizens and the space guzzlers, says R Swaminathan
Population explosion is passé. A study conducted by Mumbai-based Network for Transportation Alternatives (NTA), an NGO focusing on urban issues, reveals that vehicles have multiplied faster than people.
“Mumbaikars routinely blame the city’s soaring population for all its ills. While the population has grown 1.8 per cent annually from 1981, the car and two-wheeler population has surged 5.5 per cent and 18 per cent respectively annually,” urban transportation expert Ashok Datar told DNA.
One main reason for this is the increasing affordability of cars. Consider this: In 1975, the cost of a 800 sq ft, two-BHK apartment was Rs80,000. An Ambassador car was only three times cheaper at Rs25,000. “Today cars are at least 16 times cheaper, fuelling affordability and aspirations among the burgeoning middle class,” says Datar.
No wonder that an IIT study found that in elite localities, like Peddar Road, a family owned more than two cars. “The average number of cars a family owns in Pedder Road is 2.3 and 94,000 car trips are made through Pedder Road every day,” says the report.
The deep divide
Darryl D’Monte, journalist, author and activist, believes the city’s obsession with cars is one of the main reasons for its steady degeneration. “In Mumbai, only 9 per cent of the 14 million people use cars and two-wheelers, but more than Rs10,000 crore will be spent over the next few years on a slew of road projects,” says D’Monte. “In our race to modernise and catch up with the rest of the world, we are becoming insensitive to other people, their needs and the environment.”
D’ Monte is right about the demand. Auto analysts say that on an average 9,000 cars are sold in Mumbai every month. Delhi, however, is the car capital of the country with around 12,000 cars sold every month. The extended festival season of Navratri, Ramzan and Diwali has only pumped up the demand. “We delivered about 47 vehicles on Dhanteras and over 100 on Dassera in Mumbai. Otherwise, on average, we sell 5-10 vehicles a day,” says Jayant Badaskar of Millennium Toyota.
Thirty-four year old Bhavna Jacob, architect and interior designer, has a different perspective. “We can’t wish away cars. I have been able to expand my clientele because I have a car. You can attend a party till 2am and not worry about reaching home in one piece. The fact that I have a car of my own allows me to meet people and network, which is very important in my line of business,” she says.
Is there a way out?
Jacob and D’Monte agree on one thing: Mumbai’s roads are choking really fast. Datar thinks he has the solution. “Traffic Demand Management (TDM) is an idea whose time has come,” he says.
TDM, for the uninitiated, looks at mobility as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. It gives importance to ‘human movement’ over movement of vehicles. “In assuming that men and women move around in the city for livelihood, TDM seeks to promote high-value, low-cost travel,” says Datar. “Instead of pinning hopes on simple solutions like toll and cess, Mumbai needs to raise the cost of ownership of automobiles to check their surging population,” he says.
Taking 1975 prices as a reference point, petrol costs, annual road tax, and public transport costs have grown 14, 10 and 13 times respectively, while car maintenance costs have risen a meagre 1.5 times, mainly due to technological advancements.
“But the hourly parking charge has remained stagnant at Rs5 since 1990, irrespective of the location, car size or hour of the day. The proportion of free to paid parking is approximately 50-to-1,” Datar says. “Mumbai tops in road congestion, but there are barely any demand constraints in the form of user fees. Do you know that the average occupancy of a car is just 1.7?”
Datar says these suggestions, if implemented, will lead to 10-20 per cent reduction in the number of cars. “This will improve the speed of buses and taxis by 10 per cent, increase their load factor by 20 per cent, boost mileage, and improve their profitability. BEST is very effective, but incurring losses because speeds are down from 21 to 12 kmph and the average load factor has dropped from 72 to 55 per cent in the last two decades,“ he says.
Engineering consultant Sudhir Badami offers another solution, which has been used with great success in London. “The city authorities must seriously consider imposing a congestion tax, which will be applicable on private vehicles entering the city’s congested areas,” he says.
Ten years ago, the average speed a car could maintain on the roads of the city was 35 kmph. Today it has come down to 22 kmph.
Badami estimates that if all the cars of the city are pooled together it will occupy an area equivalent to Bandra. “Mumbai is only 468 sq km and space will always be a constraint,” he says. “But cars are here to stay and there is no point cribbing about them.” If parking solutions are not found soon, experts estimate that by 2020, a quarter of Mumbai will be filled with parked cars.
Badami says the solution lies underground. “Singapore and Hong Kong both have limited space. But they have constructed underground parking bays, freeing up precious road space. Even apartment complexes have underground parking facilities,” he says. “The bottomline is that Mumbai needs a robust and world class public transportation system that discourages people from using their cars often.”
While that may take years, Jacob’s apartment complex in Santa Cruz has found an indigenous solution. “The maintenance charges for those owning big cars (mid and luxury segment cars) are higher,” she says. Jacob used to own three cars — a Honda Accord, an Opel Astra and a Maruti Zen. “I have now sold off my Accord and Astra. In lieu, I have bought a Honda City, which I use to meet high-profile clients. Otherwise I prefer the Zen. It is easier to park and manoeuvre around the city,” she says.
Jacob is part of growing breed of people who prefer smaller cars. Entrepreneur Ashish Mehra (26) is another one. Despite having the money to buy a sedan, Mehra prefers to travel in his ‘chauffeur-driven’ Santro. “Most of my meetings are in south Mumbai. I save at least 10 minutes on my small car. Time is money for me,” he says.