Jerom Theunissen Photography


January 14-20

City in Context

Mumbai is the capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra and a port city on western coast of India. Home to 18.4 million residents in the greater metro area, Mumbai is the largest urban agglomeration in India by population, and is the fourth densest city in the world, with 73,837 people per square mile (source). That is about three times denser than New York City, the most dense city in the United States.

Mumbai is also a city of contrasts. The city cracks the top ten list of cities with the most billionaires while some 62% of Mumbaikars live in informal settlements. Mumbai also has one of Asia’s largest slums, Dharavi, which packs around 700,000 people in an area of 0.81 square miles. These contrasts make for an intensely dynamic city, where people of all walks of life come to earn their living. Clearly, Mumbai has something to offer for everyone.

This dhobi ghat (open air laundry facility) in Mahalaxmi churns out thousands of pieces of laundry daily.

With so many people comes a significant demand for trips within and outside the city. As the city is overcrowded and housing is expensive, thousands of people commute long distances to their workplaces in Mumbai proper. Per day, some 7.5 million commuters use the suburban railway system. Other popular modes include buses, public taxis (black and yellows),or autorickshaws. In 2004 a master transit plan by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority called for a fully-fledged metro system, with the first line beginning operation in 2014. There are currently six lines under construction. This is highly necessary to combat the surging number of new vehicles added to Mumbai’s roads daily (currently the figure stands at 700 per day), especially given that the 75% of trips currently made by public transport is the most carbon efficient manner to provide mobility to Mumbai’s residents.

How does this daily churn of people keep make the city tick? How do commuters cope with “super dense crush loads”? And what unique solutions have been implemented that make a difference in the experience of moving through the city? With all the challenges Mumbai faces in the realm of urban planning and transport, it was a city I had to visit and see firsthand.

Chaos and Overcrowding on the Busiest Commuter Rail System in the World

More than seven million commuters a day cram onto the city’s existing suburban railway network. During rush hours, crowding is so extreme Indian authorities describe it as a “super dense crush load” – a phenomenon that occurs when about 14 to 16 standing passengers pack into one square meter of floor space. A 9-car train, with the recommended capacity of 1,700 people, packs nearly 5,000 passengers. At these capacities, Mumbai’s Western railway line is the most heavily traveled public transport corridor in the world: a ten car train leaves every three minutes, carrying 5,000 passengers per train, meaning 100,000 people per hour are transported in each direction!

However, these amazing statistics make for some brutal, and even deadly, commuting conditions. In 2018 alone, 2,981 people died on the suburban railways. 650 people died falling from trains, and 1,476 died crossing the tracks. At stations, platforms and flyovers struggle to cope with the thousands of people that move in and out of them. Tragedy struck in September of 2018, when 23 people were crushed to death in a stampede on a narrow exit stairwell between Mumbai's Prabhadevi and Parel stations. The stairway leading out of the station into a busy office district in central Mumbai was far too narrow to handle the thousands of passengers who used the station every single day. 

When I asked commuters about the dangers they faced, most of them accepted the risks as a fact of life. One gentleman I asked shrugged, "It's our daily routine. What can we do? The danger is always there." Commuters are willing to take the risks and face the inconveniences of crowded train travel because because the "locals" (nickname for the commuter trains) are far faster and cheaper than by car. People don't have the time to file complaints and lobby to officials, as a job and a daily wage take priority. While I had witnessed some bad or inconvenient mobility systems in my travels, never before have I seen locals facing death every day to make take their commute.

The World Bank produced this short video a few years ago. In addition to discussing upgrades to the suburban rail system, it gives an excellent overview of some of the challenges facing Mumbai in the pursuit of a more sustainable mobility scenario.

At the heart of the problem lies the lack of coordination between city and railway officials. Western Railway, a subsidiary of the national Indian Railways, does not consult or communicate with the city of Mumbai when it comes to estimating passenger loads and numbers. This disconnect is a main cause of the stampede at Prabhadevi, where former mill lands became office developments after the mills closed in the 1980s. These new office spaces led to an influx of office workers during rush hour. These developments have been described by Mumbai based architect and urban planner Chandrashekhar Prabhu as "indiscriminate urbanization, without any study, without any study of impact on  transport." As thousands of commuters came into the city, the same old Prabhadevi station was overwhelmed.

At this moment, the suburban commuter lines in Mumbai are the cheapest and fastest options to get around the city. But with the dearth of risks faced by commuters and the strain on infrastructure, Mumbai must seek an alternative to ensure safe and efficient mobility in the city. Enter the Mumbai Metro.

Mumbai Metro - Creating New Arteries in the City

Some 80 feet below the surface, seventeen massive tunnel-boring machines cut through Mumbai's underbelly. Construction work is well underway for Mumbai’s Metro Line 3, a 20-mile-long underground line linking the southern peninsula of the city with the Seepz residential area in the north. 9 miles of tunnels are already complete, and the project is on track to be finished and open by the end of 2021. Metro Line 3 is the largest project under the Mumbai Metro Master Plan, which includes 8 other corridors and covers a total length of 91 miles (145.6 km).

Like any project of such scale, it is not without controversy. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) has faced 65 court cases relating to the construction of the metro, with half still being open. These cases included petitions about land and property rights, noise, religious freedom and from people trying to protect trees along the Metro’s alignment.

One case involves two Parsi temples which will have the metro tunnel pass close by.The case cites that the subway could interrupt prayers and desecrate holy ground, fearing that if non members or menstruating women pass below while riding on it, the sanctity of the temple will be destroyed. Additional concerns are that tunneling and station work could damage the temples or drain wells on the temple sites. After deliberating the case in India’s Supreme Court and halting construction for six months, construction was allowed to resume.On January 28th, the MMRC informed the Supreme Court that is was able to shift the Kalbadevi station 20 meters away from the nearest boundary of the Wadia Atash Behram Temple. Case closed!

The short-term pain and inconvenience is worth it, argue state officials. Upon completion, the Metro 3 project is expected to reduce the load on existing commuter rail lines by nearly 15% (or about 1 million people). Major business and residential hubs will be linked with one another. The entire train will be air-conditioned, and commuters will be saved from noise/dust pollution and will be able travel with better comfort. Traffic jams would be avoided and significant time would be saved for trips typically made by private automobile. In fact, a reduction of traffic on the corridor would result in about 35% less vehicles on the roads.

This excellent article from the Wall Street Journal highlights the people behind the project and explains how Mumbaikars are affected.

Lunch Delivery Perfected - Mumbai's Dabbawala's

In 1890, a Parsi banker came up with the idea of a delivered lunch after wanting home-cooked food in the office. Today, this simple concept of lunch freshly delivered to your office has evolved into an efficient, people-powered system that serves over 200,000 hungry office workers daily. Served by an army of 5,000 dabbawalas (which translates as “one who carries the box”), hot food is collected from the residences of workers in the late morning in tiffin lunch boxes, also known as dabbas.

These lunchboxes are one of India’s simplest yet more effective concepts: a large circular metal tin that comes in two, three, or four tiers. The bottom is the largest, with rice, while the others include a curry, a side of vegetables, dal, flatbreads, and a dessert. The dabbas are also easy to carry and transport, fitting nicely into a palette or onto the handlebars of a bicycle.

Dabbawalas collect the dabba’s from the people who made them from the receiver’s home around 10am. Each dabba is labelled using a system of symbols and colors, denoting where it is picked up, which station it will be sent to and the final address of the owner. The tiffins then travel on the city’s suburban rail network where at the other end the local dabbawalas pick them up for the last leg of the journey – the lunchtime delivery, which is never late. In terms of transport, the only motorized transport used is the Mumbai local trains, complemented by hand-drawn carts and bicycles to cover the last-mile to and from the station.

At a cost of about 450 rupees per month(USD $6.30), depending on distance, this service guarantees the user a freshly cooked meal that is always on time and delivered without mistake. In fact, the Mumbai Tiffinmen’s Association claims that dabbawalas make only one mistake every million deliveries, at 99.99% accuracy. This business model has been intensely studied by logistics companies like FedEx and by business journals like the Harvard Business Review. I think these dabbawalas underscore that it doesn’t take fancy apps or business models to ensure success. And that nothing quite replaces the delights of a home-cooked meal!

This video explains the wonder of dabbawalas, and how it exceed six sigma standards.

Parting Thoughts

My time in Mumbai was the most eye-opening part of my visit to India. The sheer volume of people, cars, two-wheelers, and lunchboxes was amazing to see firsthand. The persistence amongst locals made Mumbaikars some of the toughest urbanites I have met on my travels. Riding with them in the trains and on buses offered a very real perspective on the challenges Mumbai faces in the realm of urban transport and livability. To take the city into the future, stakeholders should think first of these commuters. Better pedestrian facilities at stations and a new metro would be a step in the right direction. Steering public transport towards low-income slums are the first steps in breathing new life into the beating drum of Mumbai's urban fabric. Once this is facilitated, citizens can spend more time on work, play, and leisure in this dynamic metropolis. 

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