Mumbai trains are bad? Buses and roads are worse!

Thursday's commuter deaths demonstrated the pathetic condition of Mumbai's rail network, but the alternatives are so much worse.

Mahesh Vijapurkar April 20, 2012 12:05:56 IST
Mumbai trains are bad? Buses and roads are worse!

The just-ended midweek in Mumbai has revealed just how delicately poised the rail commute system is, precariously perched on a razor’s edge between its daily chaotic running and a disastrous situation.

There are other aspects to travel across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) - geographically Mumbai is only a tenth of the MMR, the rest being a huge swath hosting a third of that city’s population – which are as bad, or even worse than what the groaning railways offer.

Mumbai trains are bad Buses and roads are worse

Bus services across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region are even worse than its overcrowded trains. Reuters

Such travel has everything to do with the roads, including the roads and sidewalks that take the commuters to the railway stations which actually knock the uber out of the city’s image. The problems are so numerous that we shall cite only a sample of them.

Before we get there – that is the problem, getting here, there or anywhere – let us look at the stations from which the locals are accessed.

Some of them, like Mulund East do not even have a discernible entrance except a gap leading on to the platforms. It is not as if all stations have to be iconic as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus but at least somewhat decent?

Now, cut to Borivli East. Take a BEST bus there and you will find yourself traveling through congested, narrow roads where pedestrians struggle to edge forward past all the buses crowding them out. Often, in what could have been a seamless transfer from a bus to a train sees commuters scrambling and running to get their 8.47, for the bus is in a traffic jam.

Kurla station is a legend by itself. But there are more of them along the routes.

The stations are nothing to write home about. Its dinginess is hidden by the crowds and remains unattended. Some peak hours see more crowds fighting for both a space to stand and a path to crash into a train just trundling in; the scenes are worse than the coaches that already have, as the authorities say, 'super-crush-load' crowds. Facilities like foot over-bridges are nominal in some cases.

Here are listed some things that could be done across the Mumbai metropolitan region (MMR) to improve the situation. And one more thing, there is no point in talking about only Mumbai; there are others involved too.

• A unified transport system, to start the buses for the entire MMR.

Of the seven major cities in the MMR, only Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Thane, Mira-Bhayandar, and Kalyan-Dombivli which funnel huge numbers into Mumbai’s business areas daily have bus services.
Of them, Mumbai’s BEST is only relatively good, not superlative as its acronym for Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport would suggest.

Mumbai, and to a nominal extent, the other cities’ municipalised bus services connect the neighbouring cities. They are mostly directed towards Mumbai, indicating that Mumbai still is the draw.

The other cities, Ulhasnagar, Bhiwandi and Vasai-Virar depend on the rickety buses of the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation, making do with the operator’s whims. This shows a relatively better service in the destination, Mumbai than in all the seven cities themselves.

A unified transport system would help rationalised deployment of the available fleets of varying vintages and state of repair, or more precisely, disrepair, after a comprehensive look at transportation needs across the region. The intra-city and inter-city bus services which are quite weak can be reworked. The huge gaps which debilitate any efforts at public transport’s use filled. Fare structure too can be rationalised. A single ticket should allow inter-modal transport across the railways, buses and the soon to start metro services.

The passenger loads on these inter-city routes run by municipalised services, like between Thane East and Borivli (Route 700, AC and non-AC) by BEST, and the longer Belapur-Borivli ( Route 123, only AC) run by the Navi Mumbai Muncipal Transport show their usefulness. Their utility arises from the east – west connectivity offered in a city region obsessed with the north-south flows. But Navi Mumbai to Bhiwandi is just not possible now.

There are severe shortcomings with each of the city’s services. The Thane municipalised service has not even displayed the timings of the first and the last bus service of the day, because it knows it does not keep to a schedule. Half the buses are garaged for want of personnel or being in disrepair. Mira-Bhayandar’s don’t even look clean. These cities have persisted with a one-size-fits all approach using big buses when midi-buses are required given their narrow roads.

• Lift barriers for autorickshaws
Autorickshaws, the lifelines of all cities have permission to ply in neighbouring cities, but somehow are restricted to crossing the municipal limit and dropping the passenger off to take another three-wheeler from there. This mode is quite the nimble thing in badly managed road networks and defying traffic rules, and can reach nooks and crannies which have never seen a bus. The permits are otherwise city-specific and their fare structures also differ. Then there is the disadvantage of tampered meters, and the arrogance of drivers.

These should be opened up. A rickshaw from one place should be able to freely travel from one city to another, though such inter-city commutes are likely be short, say from Mulund to Gokhale Road in Thane, Borivli or Dahisar to Mira-Bhayandar’s, or some midpoint location. The rickshaw unions, in the clutches of politicians and wary of others stepping in to rob them of their rights, may come in the way but must be overcome.

• Road networks have to be squarely dealt with to enhance their quality and utility
Roads are wrongly seen as being the prerogative of car-owners. The commoners use them too, perhaps even more than the latter, using less safe means and pathways.

Roads within each city and roads across the MMR are differently managed, their standards ranging from utterly bad where all vehicle can only bounce, to the utterly worse which sport an occasional good patch in between monsoons. The unified transport system mentioned earlier would have its efficiency dependent on the quality of the roads because to keep schedules, they need smooth rides, not delays by negotiating paths over or around potholes.

These roads need to have particular quality standards laid and ensured so that they are not often dug up. The Swiss consultants appointed by the Mumbai civic body have already said how shoddy the work is in order to steal money, and how they are recklessly dug up. This is the case with all cities in MMR.

Roads and buses need bus stands. They are woeful, with the newer types designed more to meet the advertisers’ need for a prop for his display than the waiting passenger’s minimal comfort. They offer no protection from sun and rain, and are of use only as a marker. Yes, they look elegant but what’s the point? This is actually a deficiency of service when the fares are fixed in monopoly market conditions.

• Free the sidewalks
Getting to a station or a bus stand is itself a task. The sidewalks have physically disappeared in many places across the MMR and even when they do exist, are occupied by hawkers. This means a man-machine struggle with the human life most vulnerable. The courts have of course upheld the right to livelihoods and allowed these tiny businessmen to work from what does not belong to them – the footpaths.

The courts have to be persuaded that the right to safety, which is why the civic bodies lay the sidewalks and own it for upkeep, is as important as the right to livelihood. Under the pretence of being obliged to follow the court’s views and orders, the hawkers are allowed to remain there as a source of rent by the corrupt civic officials. The ratio of licensed to unlicensed hawkers in Mumbai could be perhaps one to 100, and in other cities in the MMR, it is worse.

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