Welcome the Mumbai Metro but consider the questions it raises, writes Smruti Koppikar

The inauguration of the first metro line in Mumbai during the monsoon of 2014 was an event filled with great excitement and a sense of the new, much like that of April 1853 when the first line of railway iron was unveiled by the British to the “natives”. ‘

For weeks, a ride was free on the newly inaugurated metro between Versova and Ghatkopar; Delighted Mumbaikars boarded the metro simply for the experience, not to get to their destination. Mumbai is expected to have two more metro lines tomorrow – line 2A and line 7 – on the occasion of Gudi Padwa.

It took eight long years – and admirable patience on the part of Mumbaikars – for the next phase of the metro to become part of the city’s transport network. The cause for the celebration of the two new lines is genuine and understandable.

The sooner the other lines of the Mumbai metro network are made operational, the better. As The Free Press Journal pointed out in a recent editorial, a whole generation of Mumbai citizens grew up during the 22 years of metro construction with roads barricaded and dug up.

There could not be a more appropriate time in the long and complex arc of Mumbai’s transport history, unique in many ways in the context of international cities, to take stock of the transport matrix in the city of India’s densest suburb and the mobility it provides to millions every day.

When completed, Mumbai’s metro network will span 357 kilometers and 14 lines with more than 220 stations, but it is not the magic bullet that will solve commuters’ problems. It is clear that metro is the next rapid transit system that local and state governments across India have chosen as the fundamental infrastructure after local bus services and conventional railway lines in cities.

The metro has existed in India for decades; the first was opened with fanfare in Kolkata – then Calcutta – in 1984-85. The Delhi Metro network started almost 20 years ago, four years after which the National Urban Transport Policy was formulated in 2006 in which Metro was seen as the way forward in Indian cities.

At last count in the pre-pandemic period, ten cities had metro systems and nearly 15 had expressed a desire or unveiled plans for their own metro systems. When completed, this would total over 1,200 kilometers of metro rail network in just a handful of cities – a fraction of that in other cities around the world, but a significant addition to transport systems in urban India.

By 2047, nearly 100 cities would have metro networks, according to the central government. But questions persist: who is our cities’ metro system, how does it fit into a city’s transportation network, and what are its impacts on the city’s economy and culture? There can only be an assortment of people who use the metro for their mobility needs in cities, but it is possible to distinguish a particular subset of commuters as metro users.

They are generally middle to upper class, mostly in white collar jobs or small contractors, comfortable with the access and security systems that are commonplace in metro networks, comfortable with personal devices and giving off a certain urbanism. as if they belonged to the city.

There are, indeed, working class commuters on the metro too, but in smaller numbers than on the BEST buses on the existing Mumbai metro line, and it is rare to find a poor person taking the metro like route choice.

If a subway ticket costs several times the fare for a similar distance on the commuter rail or local BEST bus, adding it to the city’s transportation network is bound to have limited impact. Fare setting for the existing Mumbai Metro has become controversial in the past. Delhi Metro fares are more affordable.

The difference between the two perhaps reflects the difference in control and management structures and underlines once again the need for a public authority to lead public transport systems. Pricing a metro ticket out of reach of the maximum number of commuters is a safe but subtle way to make it an exclusive domain.

There may be a class of commuters whose needs are met, but eventually the metro becomes an elitist or semi-elitist space, distinct from other transport systems. This element of how and where the metro network, limited or large, fits into the existing transport-mobility matrix determines whether it facilitates travel for the maximum number of people or becomes a centerpiece for the city.

To be efficient and cost-effective, it must be integrated into the wider urban mobility plan as one of the many modes used by commuters. In no big city in the world, commuters use only one mode to get to their place of work or leisure, the urban journey is by nature multimodal? It is becoming essential to integrate the metro network with other existing modes – often much older – such as the railway and buses. Again, last mile connectivity makes all the difference to the efficiency of a metro system.

Unlike buses, subway lines are rarely designed for door-to-door connectivity, meaning commuters must use another mode of transport to get to and from a subway station. Usually walkways or bus routes do the job.

In India, the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws fill the void but, in Mumbai, they crowd around the base of elevated stations on the Versova-Ghatkopar impeding traffic on those roads and blocking station entrances.

This is the classic Indian system at work – the jurisdiction of the metro authorities ends at the station and the road authorities take over, or the suburban railway territory ends where the authority of the civic body begins , and these turn out to be pain points for commuters.

There may be multiple transport authorities for each mode depending on their role, expertise and jurisdiction, but the commuter deserves seamless mobility. Mumbai, for that matter any city’s authorities, operate within their jurisdictions, leaving commuters straddling gaps.

International cities with efficient and thoughtful transport networks, of which the metro is a part, emphasize a seamless mobility experience. Service providers may focus on transport, but commuters are looking for mobility – cost-effective, safe and reliable mobility between destinations.

A transit-oriented development (TOD) approach, deliberate or not, has underlined the growth and expansion of most cities. These areas and locations are beginning to buzz with residents and businesses where mobility through safe and reliable transportation options is assured. The subway is no different. A large metro system in any city will see changes in land use, some gentrification, rising cost of housing and property in some places, etc.

There is a metro culture in cities with a wide metro map, just like Mumbai has its commuter rail culture. What it is and how it evolves depends on who in the city uses metro mode. A metro network is therefore not simply a transport system, but has the potential to transform a city, people’s lives and urban culture itself. These aspects are rarely addressed or taken into account when designing a metro, but it is foolish to ignore them. Let’s welcome Mumbai’s metro lines but also reflect on their impact.

(The author is a freelance journalist, columnist, urban columnist and media educator who writes about politics, cities, gender and development. She tweets at @smrutibombay)

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Posted: Friday 01 April 2022, 08:36 IST

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