This April, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan took a chopper every day for a week while shooting in Vasai for his upcoming movie ‘Zero’. The Bandra resident boarded a helicopter in the evenings at Pawan Hans hangar in Vile Parle, reaching Vasai in time for a 12-hour shoot, before returning home the next morning, again on a chopper. He completed the 50-km journey in 10 minutes. Below, on Western Express Highway (WEH), average speeds are currently 21 km per hour, down to 15 km per hour on the stretches worst hit by barricading for the Metro Rail construction.
Unlike the superstar, 30-year-old Virag Shah and his wife simply moved homes to escape traffic. They moved to Ghatkopar from Borivali, unable to continue the daily drive to South Mumbai. Shah and his wife both have leg disabilities and cannot take public transport. “My wife works in Churchgate. On the way back, she would pick me from my office in Andheri,” he says.
One day in 2017, Shah’s wife’s evening drive took an additional two and a half hours. “She desperately needed to use the bathroom, but there was nowhere to go on Western Express Highway. By the time we got home, she was in serious discomfort. We decided the same day that we have to move,” says Virag, a chartered accountant.
They were reluctant to leave his elderly parents, but spending six to seven hours on the road every day was no longer practical. “It spoils the mood at home. You don’t feel like eating, you don’t feel like talking to anyone. Your mind doesn’t work,” says Shah, who now lives in proximity to the Eastern Freeway.
The Metro Rail construction, especially along the WEH, was only the tipping point for Mumbai’s roads, already bursting at the seams. As per Regional Transport Office (RTO) data, vehicular traffic in Mumbai has shot up by 50 per cent over five years. While there were 21.87 lakh vehicles registered in the year ending March 2013, the number rose to 33.35 lakh vehicles in March 2018. Over the same period, road length in Mumbai continued to hover around 2,000 km. This means traffic density has risen from 1,050 vehicles per km to 1,650 vehicles per km. Little wonder then that even senior officials from the Mumbai Police’s Traffic department concede that traffic on some stretches has reached alarming proportions.
Accepting that traffic management is a huge challenge, Amitesh Kumar, Joint Commissioner of Police, Traffic, says he has ordered traffic policemen and women to only regulate traffic during peak hours, not enforce fines. “They only regulate traffic. Smooth movement of commuters is the only priority… only regulation and management, keeping the carriageways as clear as possible, attending places where there is congestion and clearing them as best as possible,” he says.
Kumar is optimistic that traffic congestion on the roads will decrease once the Metro lines under construction become operational and along with the completion of the Bandra-Versova Sea Link and the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link. “Metro work is taking a very large part of the carriageway at the moment. But it is I think a transition phase,” he says. “The worst is almost over.”
Sandeep Sathe (30), a bus conductor on BEST bus route 261 that goes from Goregaon railway station to Jogeshwari station, approximately 5 km apart on a route mostly via the Link Road, says one trip used to be around a half hour’s drive. “For the past year-and-a-half, it takes us nearly 1.5 hours to cover the same distance.” From four trips earlier, the morning hours now see only two trips on this route. Vijay Sorap (32), a BEST bus driver on the same route, says the Metro construction is only part of the problem. “Along Link Road ahead of Oshiwara bus depot, a part of the lane is covered by parked autorickshaws, an overflowing garbage bin, double parking, and at times triple parking.”
The 15-km Link Road parallel to SV Road and WEH is termed by many as the worst commute in Mumbai, along with the WEH during peak hours. And both roads are dug up at multiple spots or barricaded for construction of the Metro 2 A and Metro 2 B (routes linking DN Nagar to Dahisar and Mankhurd). At spots where the 16 Metro stations are to come up, construction vehicles parked on the road, the thick traffic pile-ups in peak hours in addition to the large number of malls and multiplexes here lead to hours-long snarls.
Vijay Iyer (31), a banker and resident of Bangur Nagar in Goregaon (West), used to return from work around 6.30 pm and then attend Mandarin classes in Malad. He used to ride his bike, via the Link Road, to his class. “I stopped attending class on weekdays. It’s too frustrating to be stuck in traffic after work,” he says.
Prashant Shankarnarayan of Wadala, managing partner at a content production firm, shifted his office premises from Charkop to Mindspace in Malad, but that has done little to alter the ordeal of having to drive all the way there. “There have been times when I have moved one kilometre in 40 minutes on the WEH,” says the 35-year-old. Eventually, he went back to taking the trains. “What can you do? You can’t stop earning and you can’t stop working.”
The agencies facing flak for road works say they’re aware of the grave inconvenience to motorists. MMRDA spokesperson Dilip Kawathkar said, “Our priority is to ensure that there is no inconvenience to the people because of us. Whenever the police contacts us regarding some road issue, we respond immediately.”
Regular commuters on the WEH identify the exits to JVLR, the junction with Oberoi Mall and the entrance to Lokhwandwala Township in Kandivali as the most troublesome spots. Compounding this is the Bombay Exhibition Centre, where the effects of traffic from the expos became suddenly apparent after November 2017, when a pharmaceutical exhibition led to hours-long jams on the WEH.
Poor planning resulted in the organisers failing to account for the sheer number of cars. The available 800 parking slots were soon taken, and with attendees parking on the service roads, the poorly co-ordinated entry and exit of vehicles virtually shut down traffic movement on the WEH for a whole day. Since then, the traffic police has ordered BEC to keep at least two exhibition centres inside the complex free only for parking vehicles.
Officials at the Bombay Exhibition Centre were not available for comment despite repeated attempts. Kawathkar added, “We had taken all permission for the Metro, which is our largest project under way, from the police before beginning work. We coordinate with the police on issues of traffic management and respond quickly if there is an issue.”
Tomorrow: As traffic worsens, bad roads lead to inter-agency tussles.