Mar 18 2024

Shortly before I sat down to write this email, I was chatting with a friend
who took a drive today on a section of Bombay's new "Coastal Road". This
road is supposed to run along the western coast of the city, making
commutes to and from the northern suburbs easier. As these things go, and
no doubt because we are in a time of elections, our political bigwigs were
desperate to "inaugurate" this road and trumpet that achievement. So even
though most of it is yet to be completed, one southbound section is open
for limited hours every day and not on weekends.

Be that as it may. The word I hoped would catch your attention above is
"easier". Meaning, easier for whom? Whom is a road like this planned for,
whom will it benefit?

I've wondered about such questions before, for other such roads. On
February 23, for example, I asked them in a column about the Mumbai
Trans-Harbour Link (MTHL), a 22-km long bridge over the sea to the mainland.

Take a look: A spectacular bridge that few use,

And don't forget to let me know what you make of my reasoning.



A spectacular bridge that few use

As we drove to the Ro-ro ferry to cross the Mumbai harbour to Mandwa, our
driver looked positively wistful. "Could have taken the MTHL", he said.
Given where we were headed for, it would have been a longer journey, but
that didn't seem to matter to him. This did: "It's even better than the

That's the Bandra-Worli Sealink he meant, apparently now the bar for other,
newer bridges and highways. And that's the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link he
also meant, the 22 km bridge from Sewri across the harbour to Uran. It's
been open to traffic for just over a month now, and while I haven't used
it, I know at least one person who has, and who wishes he can take it
again. And again. "So smooth!" he sighed.

Ten days after it opened, news items told us some early MTHL numbers.
Starting with 28,176 on the first day and 54,977 on the second, a total of
about 309,000 vehicles had already used the bridge in those ten days, we
heard. On average then, over 30,000 vehicles drove across it daily. The
revenue from tolls was about Rs 61.5 million, or about Rs 200 per vehicle.
This made sense, because the toll for traversing the whole bridge is Rs
250, with smaller amounts for shorter stretches.

Sounds like a lot of cars? Sounds like there was plenty of early curiosity
about this sparkling new addition to the Mumbai landscape - or seascape,
rather - and that settled down to a more routine flow of vehicles? Maybe
so. That's the way things usually are with sparkling new additions. When
the Bandra-Worli Sealink opened in 2009, plenty of Mumbaikars drove across
for a joyride, resulting in a huge rush in those first few days. The rush
subsided as the novelty wore off. By its designers' own admission, the
Sealink was designed to transport over 100,000 cars daily. The actual
number is about 32,000 daily. Less than a third of capacity.

Will something similar happen with the MTHL?

To answer that, of course, we need to wait for a while and then measure the
traffic on the MTHL. By now, it has been open just over a month. Time
enough to draw some conclusions. And indeed, news items popped up, 30 days
on, to tell us some month-old MTHL numbers. The bridge "turned
one-month-old on February 13," says one report, "and a total of [813,000]
vehicles used the bridge in the past month."

Ten days, and now 30 days: you'd expect the second count of vehicles to be
three times the first, or close at any rate. But three times 309,000 is
927,000. The actual count is 813,000 - which gives us a daily average, for
the month, of 27,100 vehicles. That's a 12% drop-off from the ten-day
count, and a better than 50% drop-off from the novelty-fueled rush of the
second day.

None of this should be surprising, really. Novelty wearing off is one
reason usage drops off. Another reason is the cost of the toll. Rs 250 may
seem reasonable for a bridge across the sea that's 22km long. But for a lot
of motorists, it is nevertheless a reasonably large chunk of money, a
definite deterrent to using the MTHL.

Besides, as with the Sealink, there's another number to consider: capacity.
Actual usage is one thing, but how many vehicles was it designed to carry?
Put another way, what daily count was predicted for the MTHL when it was
being built, and then opened? The answer, some reports suggest, is about
70,000. Take a moment to let that sink in. Usage over the bridge's first
month averaged less than 40% of its capacity - or as another report
headlined it, "62% short of projection." Even on that heady second day when
curious Mumbaikars took their MTHL joyrides, the traffic on the bridge was
less than 80% of its capacity.

What accounts for this? Why does usage fall so far short of capacity?

Well, you can find an explanation in those reports about a month of MTHL
usage. A Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA)
Commissioner is quoted thus: "The number of commercial vehicles is not
significant and therefore the projected vehicle count has not been
achieved." Indeed: of the 813,000 vehicles that first month, 797,000 were
cars. According to the Commissioner, "outside vehicles [don't know] about
this bridge yet." As time goes on, he said, "the count of commercial
vehicles will grow as the users will become familiar with this new

With this growth and other measures, the Commissioner asserted that in
2024, "close to 40,000 vehicles [per day] are expected to use the link."
Still only 57% of capacity, but consider a more subtle implication. We're
at 27,100 vehicles per day today. What will it take for that average to
rise to 40,000 after 11 more months? Some simple arithmetic tells us the
answer: the daily count will have to average nearly 42,000 vehicles for the
rest of the year.

Whether the bridge will attract that kind of traffic remains to be seen.
But even that number is still, you will note, under 60% of capacity. That
is, even the people who built the bridge don't expect it will attract the
number of vehicles they designed it for. Not even close.

What does that say about the bridge, about design, about planning?

What does it say about priorities?

One study showed that on average, each car moving along the Sealink carries
1.75 people. For the MTHL, let's arbitrarily raise that to three. Then the
MMRDA Commissioner's figure of 40,000 vehicles per day means 120,000 people
are using the MTHL every day. That seems like a lot of people.

Until you compare it with the number of commuters in the city of Mumbai. In
a previous, similar, column about the Sealink (,
I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about this. It showed that about
150,000 people arrive in South Mumbai by commuter train every hour during
the morning rush hour. (And similar numbers leave during the evening rush

That's right, the trains ferry more people into the heart of the city in an
hour than those who use the MTHL all day. And there's bus ridership, not
yet accounted for.

The point of all these numbers? It's a spectacular bridge and a stellar
feat of engineering, the MTHL. But let's never forget whom it was built
for: the small fraction of the city's residents who drive cars. Let's also
never forget who seem to be using it: a small fraction of even that small
fraction of the city's residents.

My book with Joy Ma: "The Deoliwallahs"
Twitter: @DeathEndsFun
Death Ends Fun:

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