The Maharashtra government’s plan to build a 34-km coastal road is rapidly running out of friends. The problem for its proponents is that the more they justify it, the more absurd it sounds. The government wants to build a coastal freeway in Mumbai, from Nariman Point in the city’s south to Kandivali in the western suburbs. But the voices of protest against it are growing.

On August 15, hundreds of people joined in protest against the coastal road. Already in July, Mumbai's fisherfolk decided to unanimously oppose the project. The Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan non-profit group has also issued its own statement condemning what it called a “futile” investment at the expense of the social sector and calling for “real and practical” transport alternatives.

The project now has two versions: a Rs 8,000-crore joint technical committee version that came out in 2011 and a newer, Rs 12,000 crore, detailed project report that was opened up for public comments recently. Objections to the new plan have now prompted its apologists to suggest alterations, such as doing away with the under-sea tunnels and building stilted roads over mangroves. But as we pointed out in an earlier article, the problem is the project itself, not its alignment.

Flawed premise

The new plan claims that the road will carry an average of 120,000 cars every day by 2019 from one end of the city to another. But experience tells us that the expected use of such projects are almost always over-optimistic, while their costs are underestimated. For example, the cost of the Bandra Worli Sea-link, a bridge across the sea connecting the island city with the first western suburb, for instance, overshot estimates by 430%, while it carries only about 40% of the traffic that was projected. Moreover, the new plan assumes that the traffic on the coastal road will increase over time, but the traffic on the sea-link has been virtually stagnant for the past five years.

The core assumption on which the entire justification of the new project rests is totally flawed. It is that car ownership in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region will grow at the rate of 2% up to 2043, from the current 139 cars per 1,000 persons to about 243 cars per 1,000. Consider for a moment this projection’s implications. Since cars do not carry their parking space with them, every car requires more than one parking space.

The number of parking spaces in New York are estimated to be between four to eight spaces per car. Assuming three parking spaces per car for Mumbai, the city will need about 60 square meters of space per car for off-street parking. With a population of 14 million by 2043, the city will have 3.4 million cars and require 20,412 hectares of built-up space just for parking. Viewed differently, the city will have to set aside net plot FSI of 1.4 only for cars.

Furthermore, if all these vehicles descend on the roads, they will require, at the rate of 15 square meters a car, 5,103 hectares of space, almost as much as the total proposed road area for Mumbai according to its new development plan. In other words, the coastal road may be viable for a city with 20% car owners, but 20% car ownership is certainly not tenable for Mumbai.

What might be of even greater surprise is that the government gives away parking space for almost nothing in a city with some of the world’s highest real estate prices. A square meter of residential space may easily cost up to 50 times the same area of off-street parking space, making it virtually a gift. This incentive encourages car use, in turn increasing traffic congestion and economic and social costs.

Yet one hardly finds planners complaining about market distortions due to the government’s parking policy. You may struggle to find affordable housing in Mumbai, but you will definitely find free or highly subsidised parking. While a city like London imposes heavy parking charges to manage vehicle demand and generate millions in revenue each year, in Mumbai, on-street parking is given away like charity. In other words, everyone pays for parking except the motorist.

This is all the more outrageous because road space is a public resource, but is only finitely available: the amount available to each reduces in proportion to the number of users.

More important, transport planning ought to be concerned with the movement of people, not vehicles. So for instance, buses occupy only 6% of the total road space in Mumbai, but move about 45% of its users. On the other hand, private vehicles, including two- and four-wheelers, take up 87% of the road space to move the same number of people.

A bus, as an ex-mayor of Bogota pointed out, has 50 times the right to a road than a car has, yet it occupies just 3.7 times the area of a single car. Buses are not only more efficient, but also more fair and sustainable. Despite this, our state urban planners are giving private transport an overwhelming advantage over public transport, which explains, much more than anything, the unsustainable increase in the purchase and use of private vehicles.

As recent figures indicate, over the past five years, the population of Mumbai has grown at a steady rate of 0.5% per year, while private cars have increased at the rate of 6.4%. About 170,000 cars have been added in this period. On the other hand, during these five years, the number of public buses run by the BEST undertaking have increased only by 108, or at the rate of 0.6% per year. The sale of auto fuels in Greater Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai has, as a result, increased at the rate of 12.4% annually over the past three years.

Opportunity costs

The new plan states that the project will be economically viable by calculating the “societal benefits” of building it, by bringing about “a reduction in vehicle operating costs travel time, accidents, environmental pollution etc.” Since people will get quickly from their homes to workplaces and back, and vehicles will run more efficiently, the plan argues that the project will have long-term economic benefits.

But this logic is fallacious, and there are three problems with such an analysis. First, it is only partially true, as it does not consider and evaluate the negative consequences of the project which may be more significant than the gains. In the words of 19th-century French political economist Frédéric Bastiat, “It takes no account of that which is not seen.”

The coastal road will result in the disruption of neighborhoods and loss of livelihoods of coastal communities, it will result in an increase in pollution due to growth in traffic, it will impose costs on the city in terms of increased parking requirements, it will have incalculable local and larger environmental impacts, and so forth.

It is incredible that transport planners would ignore these consequences in their eagerness to justify the project. This sort of argument is not very different from arguing that potholes have economic benefits because they help increase the number of vehicles that need repairs and people with back problems in the need of medical treatment.

Second, the economic benefit of this huge public investment will be drawn not by a majority of city dwellers, but by a small group of motorists, not more than 2% of the city's population who will use the western coastal road. This sort of reasoning about “societal benefits” is more suitable for public goods such as social housing or mass rail transit, not for the provision of private amenities.

Third, the plan fails to evaluate the opportunity cost of the project, namely what the city is sacrificing in the making of this choice. What else could have been done with Rs 12,000 crore? What could be the benefits of the alternative use of this public resource? The benefits of improving public transport, such as bus and surface rail, in terms of people transported, travel time and environmental pollution will be far greater than the coastal road. But the new plan refuses to make such an assessment.

Social inequalities

The coastal road is, as we have seen, inherently inegalitarian project because it will devote limited public resources to satisfy private transport needs of a very small percentage of the population. If at all such a project can be justified it is on the grounds that its enormous expense of construction and operation will be recovered from users in proportion to the benefit they derive.

This recovery is done through user charges or toll collections. However, the new plan reveals that annual toll collections from the road will not be more than 1.5% of the project cost every year, an amount that might not even be enough for the maintenance, lighting and security of the infrastructure, let alone the capital cost of building it.

At the same time, increasing the toll would bring down the number of users. If the toll is increased to the levels currently used in the Bandra Worli Sea-link, of Rs 10 a km, a single trip on the road will cost Rs 350, a price that will bring down the number of users even further. In any case, only a small fraction of the project can be financed by toll collections, the rest will be financed by the public.

So while a majority of the city will trade off comfort for costs and battle congestion on a crowded and neglected public transport network, they will pay, not to reduce their own discomfort, but to give car owners a joy ride around the city. Ordinarily, this would be called distributive injustice; in Mumbai, it is called transport planning.

But there is also a larger problem with such projects that masquerade as public goods and that are developed on a user-pays principle. Taken to their logical conclusion, such an approach results in a two-tier system, where the well-to-do will enjoy improved but costly infrastructure while the rest have to make do with low cost, poor-quality facilities.

In reality, a major motive of projects such as the coastal road seems not to be transport efficiency or environmental sustainability, but to price the public out of public transportation. Investing in expensive mega-projects like this are then justified by imposing high user charges, automatically erecting exclusion mechanisms to restrict demand to a small group of users. But these charges also have to be managed through subsidies to prevent pricing out everybody.

Many alternatives

The new plan lays out two alternatives in its attempt to make the project attractive: building the coastal road and or doing nothing. But this is again deeply flawed logic, a false dichotomy, analogous to offering a choice between killing the sick versus letting them die. The proponents forget that there can be a third alternative or many other alternatives, involving not building it and undertaking many cheaper but more effective interventions. What could these be?

The Mumbai Environmental Social Network, a think tank, has suggested a four-part alternative to the coastal road, as summarised in the table below:

First, implementing the Mumbai Urban Transport Project III would add a 5th and 6th track to Mumbai's suburban rail system. By introducing one or two air-conditioned coaches on every train, an electronic signalling system to increase frequency, and careful pricing, this will carry an additional 0.66 million people, more than twice the number of passengers the proposed road will transport, namely 0.3 million, at about one-sixth of the investment per passenger per trip.

The second step would require modernising the bus system and a bus rapid transport system on existing arteries, such as the Western Express Highway, and major east-west links. This will increase the users by 0.8 million trips per day, at one tenth the investment per passenger per trip of that entailed by the coastal road.

In addition, traffic management and parking measures will bring indirect benefits and revenue, and ideas such as car-pooling may be explored to manage congestion. All of this, together, according to the think tank will offer up to three times more trips per day than the coastal road, at 60% of its investment with up to 50% in fuel savings and emissions.

The tendency to pour big money and launch grand projects to solve problems that may require simpler and less spectacular interventions has often been detrimental to practical and inclusive urban development. The complex nature of the transport system requires a tentative and experimental approach, not massive rewiring.

Hussain Indorewala and Shweta Wagh teach at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture. They thank Ashok Datar of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network for his inputs.