As Mumbai’s Peddar Road Flyover finally gets approval, another bridge project is also inching its way forward. This is the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link, MTHL, to connect Mumbai to the mainland. Funding for this enormous project has been a problem; and, like the Peddar Road flyover, this one too has a history of stuttering starts.
Both are bridges, but they could not be more dissimilar. There are the obvious differences — location, size, and project cost — but there is also a more fundamental difference, one that speaks to the underlying approach about town planning. Who are roads built for? Do we really need more roads for private vehicles? In saying “we need more roads”, just who is “we”?
This is especially true when roads are closed to public transportation. For all its architectural grandeur, and its staggering Rs.16 billion cost, the Sea Link does not carry city buses. And the Peddar Road flyover is the direct consequence of the mess created — not solved — by the Sea Link: increased congestion at points south, something that was predicted very early on by the government’s own consultants. If the government is also planning to build the remainder of this madcap Sea Link or West Island Freeway project, then the Peddar Road flyover is useless. Buses will not use it. They will be forced under it. The Peddar Road flyover will cater to precisely the same population of private commuters as the West Island freeway. Private car commuters are less than 8% of Mumbai’s total commuting population, under 3% of Mumbai’s total population.
We, the who? Certainly not the people.
The MTHL, on the other hand, proposes something essential: a connection to the mainland. Combined with a rail link, the Trans-Harbour project finally does what other similar cities did decades ago, Manhattan being the most striking example. Like Mumbai, Manhattan needs connectors to the mainland on either side, and the ring of bridges and tunnels around it are the trusses that shore up Manhattan. These connectors are not limited to private vehicles; there are commuter rail links too.
This is a question of priority. If the Peddar Road residents are to be ignored because they are an irrelevant minority, then we must also ignore the demands of private car owners for whom the Peddar Road flyover is meant. They are an even more irrelevant minority.
This is not hyperbole. Law and justice too demand that the interests of public transport users trump those of private vehicle owners. This was emphasized by the Delhi High Court’s recent decision of 18th October on a petition by an NGO against the Delhi Government’s creation of a dedicated Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) corridor. The petitioners wanted the lane to be opened up for cars. Private car owners are an angry lot, and their anger leads them astray into mind boggling assertions that strain credulity. It is the job of a court to treat every plea with a certain gravitas; but reading the High Court decision one sees how difficult this can be. Consider this argument by the petitioners, quoted by the Delhi High Court:
“No consideration is given to the value of the time of the car users who are generally wealth creators such as managers, directors, etc.”
This is travels far beyond mere elitism; it dwells in surrealism and delusion. The High Court duly rubbished it.
“We remind ourselves that a developed country is not one where the poor own cars. It is one where the rich use public transport.”1
That one sentence nails it all. This is precisely the issue. The High Court looked at numbers too: on major roads, 70% of the traffic in Delhi is cars. These carry only 18% of the total transported. 10% of the traffic volume is buses, and these carry 60% of the total. The remaining 20% (presumably rickshaws and taxis) carry 22%. And the High Court concludes that public transport is the “only long-term solution”.2
This isn’t true only of Delhi or Mumbai. It’s equally true of Bangalore, a city that has seen a manic expansion of roads with no reduction in congestion, and where a single accident can snarl traffic for hours. This is the result of flawed thinking about our cities and transportation. Again, the Delhi High Court order highlights this when it notes that of the Central Government’s grants through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, 98% was spent on road expansion, flyovers, and parking projects and only 2% on other transport projects. To call this irrational is to be too kind.3 It is nothing short of a betrayal. “What does it reveal?” asks the Court. “Cars, cars and cars, and nothing else.”4
The fascination with roads is a fascination with cars, and that is a fascination with American suburbia as a viable and desirable prototype for the form of our cities. People in low-occupancy cars driving long distances on congested roads, and decrepit public transport meant only for the poor cannot be a valid vision of progress or development anywhere. Every time we build another road for private cars we take one more step to perdition.
As Mumbai's Peddar Road Flyover [finally gets approval], another bridge project is also inching its way forward. [This is the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link], MTHL, to connect Mumbai to the mainland. Funding for this enormous project has been a problem; and, like the Peddar Road flyover, this one too has a history of stuttering starts.
: http://www.mumbaimirror.com/article/15/20121031201210310423044573678c5dd/Pedder-late-than-never.html "Pedder late than never, Abhijit Sathe, Mumbai Mirror, 31 October 2012"
: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/finmin-okays-harbour-link-funding/10243 "FinMin okays harbour link funding, Surbhi Ogra, Indian Express, 31 October 2012"