The best way to get to know the area where you live is to walk around it. You zip past in cars, buses, auto-rickshaws and you miss the details and the charm. The city can become a blur of hoardings and buildings, with no defining features: each area indistinguishable from the last. Last week’s fare hike for taxis and autos handed Mumbai’s citizens a wonderful opportunity to reclaim their city and many of them have decided to do just that.
They are seeing it as an act of defiance or born out of financial need or as a forced end to laziness. Health with a little extra wealth as a bonus, you might say. Short distances can easily be covered with a walk and a thank you from the old (or young) ticker. Those who are really inspired by the health kick could even invest in a bicycle.
One of Mumbai’s biggest problems is that it has not made adequate investment in public transportation. Neither the suburban train system nor the BEST bus system are adequate any more and have not been for years. The enormous rise in the numbers of private cars has made the traffic impossible in peak times and most other times as well. Most of the state’s focus in the past 15 years has been on more flyovers, to accommodate all those cars. Even those barely make a difference a few months after they become operational. Not to mention that they take years to build. What was once India's premier city is now a doddering, injured body limping along, barely surviving.
None of the new plans for Metro railways and elevated railways seem to be integrated or even enough for today’s needs, let alone the future. Mumbai’s still-being-built metro service is not an underground service in the way the term is usually understood — vast portions are over-ground. One leg is being thought and re-thought. This service in any case does not cover the north-south axis of a linear city. It moves east-west so will only ease a proportion of commuter pressure.
The Indian Railways has its own plans for an elevated railway service to bolster the existing commuter lines. It is not hard to imagine how many years that is going to take to be ready. As it happens, 70 lakh people use the local train service every day — 37 lakh on the Central line and 33 lakh on the Western line.
There’s a quote going around the internet which is attributed to a mayor of Bogota. If the name is Petro Gustavo, the quote goes like this: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” But if the quote is by Gustavo’s predecessor about 10 years before him, Enrique Penalosa, it changes to this: “An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation”.
Either way, whoever said it, it makes sense. But it’s a bit of sense which Mumbai has forgotten. From New York to London to Paris, the underground service is used by office-goers of all classes. Cars have not been a priority to New Yorkers for years. The prices of petrol and diesel ought to bear that out for Mumbai, which in some circles has splurged on three or four cars per family. Let’s not even discuss parking and the heartache that brings. (Well, I heard a story about man who bought a Rs 16-crore flat on Marine Drive and now has to park his beloved BMW in the street…)
So rather than wait for the city to get its act together and for taxi and auto drivers to stop fleecing us, we might as well just pull out our walking shoes and dump the gym membership. Hop over cracks in the pavement, negotiate the collapsed pavers, skip the human and animal waste matter and you’ve even practised for an obstacle race.
Look, the weather’s turning and it’s only the afternoons that are unbearably hot. It’s going to get pleasanter. This fare hike couldn’t have come at a better time really. Take that, all you fat cat cardiologists stuck in traffic jams in your fancy cars.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona