Sometime in March this year the whole country went into a severe lockdown due to COVID-19.
Life and the resultant travel came to a standstill for over a month. Most of our understanding of how travel in Mumbai has been since then, is largely empirical.
Some key data points that we’ve seen published since the pandemic began are – bicycle sales have more than doubled since the lockdown began; automobile sales picked up after May; and as of early November, BEST daily ridership was back up to about 23 lakhs (almost 2018 levels).
For most of us, initial days of the lockdown meant going as far as the grocery shop or the medical store; while for those in essential services, the frontline workers, staff from the Municipal Corporation, Mumbai Police and other government agencies moved around either in private or shared vehicles or BEST buses. Auto rickshaws were barely seen and many drivers even went back to their hometowns. For the first time, in our lifetime, suburban trains were shut down for this long.
Since June, as the government slowly ‘unlocked’ the city, more people started commuting to work. With a large part of the general public still disallowed on the suburban trains, the city, today, is witnessing almost as much traffic as it did before the first lockdown.
Based on our understanding from the past nine months, one could infer that a lot of people have started bicycling for recreational purposes, in addition to the several people dependent on their bicycles to conduct daily business.
A lot of people won’t feel safer to travel by shared (public transport) and will prefer to travel using a personal automobile.
What 2021 might look like
To understand that, we need to look at the demand and supply sides of commuting.
On the demand side, a lot will depend on whether offices decide to open up or continue to work from home, which in turn, in all likelihood will depend on the vaccine turnout and distribution.
Those whose livelihood depends upon going out will of course continue to travel. Mode choice will depend on mode availability – especially of the local trains – and the perception of safety. While it looks plausible that the government could open the suburban trains to general population, soon enough, given that the reported case numbers in Mumbai are have not surged recently, one cannot rule out the possibility of another resurgence.
On the supply side though, it appears that the preparations are in order for a post-COVID19 world, that will be much like the pre-COVID19 world, in terms of travel.
MCGM continues to build a 12km coastal road worth over INR 12000 cr. The Mumbai Trans Harbor Link (MTHL) is under construction and the work is moving ahead on all the metro lines, albeit with some hindrances. Apart from that, all other city road improvement projects seem to be on. Will these projects meet the stated deadlines, or will the deadlines be extended, as they have many times in the past? This question is much like the vaccine question, even when the vaccine is approved, when will a significant population get it, such that we can resume life like before?
The Chief Minister in his recent address mentioned that, he expects the mask mandate to be in place for another 6 months at the least. Assuming this to be an indicator of how things will be, it’s likely that we are not going to be in a very different state from where we are now for most of 2021.
Look into the past, to predict the future
Over the past two decades, Mumbai witnessed the development of over 60 flyovers, the eastern freeway, the Jogeshwari Vikhroli link road, and the much acclaimed Bandra Worli Sea-Link.
While that happened, we also saw and exponential growth in automobiles and, no significant increase in the public transport capacity. As a result, our average peak hour travel speed on almost of these corridors is barely 10km/hr.
That more roads lead to more cars, is not something that the transport planners don’t know anymore – we have enough evidence of that. These large projects, though, cannot be viewed in isolation.
Almost every major street in Mumbai was (or is being) ‘widened’ to its fullest extent possible. More roads not only lead to more cars, it also leads to, well, more roads.
While the focus was on widening roads, pedestrians have taken the biggest hit, despite 51% of all trips being pedestrian trips and car trips being a mere 7 percent.
The widening focused on the carriageway – the portion of the roads where cars ply, while footpaths had to be kept to the bare minimum. Everyday pedestrians were squeezed out of places to walk, by the sheer pressure of growing automobiles and its footprint in terms of parking need. It also robbed us of what used to be once a very vibrant street life. Street side businesses suffered. This is evident by the fact that, every year, over 50% of those that die in road traffic crashes are pedestrians.
From Roads for Cars to Streets for People
This decade the Mumbai Metropolitan region and the city of Mumbai will see significant investment in the transportation sector. We also need to know that has disproportionately affected the poor, and several of them have lost their livelihood. If we don’t use all these funds to build a more people friendly streetscape, we will have lost an opportunity of a lifetime.
It’s very important to understand that streets are much more that just a conduit for traffic. Streets are where people celebrate, socialize, do business, play and exercise. Streets are contributory open spaces – in fact the largest continuous network of open spaces that we have in the city.
One evening last week, a colleague had parked his car on a street in Juhu in the western suburbs in Mumbai, while running a few errands. Back in 10 minutes, he sees his car window broken and the laptop bag stolen with all his valuables. He immediately went to the Juhu Police station to lodge a complaint. Since it was within a 30-minute window of when the robbery occurred, Mumbai Police quickly launched a search party. Police officials shared that they had seen a spike in such cases over the past few months.
Same day, I came across a Facebook post on a Residents’ Welfare Group page, where someone had clicked an image of a vegetable vendor, with his cart placed between parallelly parked cars, on the street outside his building, complaining about how the vendor had taken over what he thought was “public parking”.
You may wonder how these two are connected, except that the former needs better surveillance and the latter, more enforcement. A different imagination of these two situations, rooted in the primary thought that it’s about moving people, not just cars, can not only resolve our urban crisis, but also aid equitable economic recovery and build a happy city for all.