Road safety in Mumbai: making in-roads

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Greater Mumbai has one of the highest population densities in the world, with more than 18 million people crammed into this bustling and strained city.

This city is almost split in two: to the south, the city centre perched on reclaimed land, to the north-east vast sprawling suburbs. The housing is unaffordable in the Island City centre, so most people live in suburban Mumbai or beyond. The population of the suburbs overtook Island City in the 1970s and has been growing rapidly ever since.

More than 5,700 people died on the roads of Mumbai between 2006 and 2016.

The city’s tremendous growth and its geography puts great strain on its infrastructure. To get to work, people rely on the rail and bus networks. The rail network sees 7 million trips a day. Despite congestion making them slow, buses facilitate 5.5 million journeys a day – half a million more journeys than are made on the London Underground. Travel costs are high, too.

 

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Attempts to address road safety must grapple with the the prevailing view that being safe on the roads is a personal responsibility independent of the local regulatory, transportation and infrastructural conditions.

 

The average person living in Mumbai spends 11% of their total income on public transport. The poorest pay 16%. This expensive, high-volume mass transit system is unable to meet demand. A problem exacerbated by the fact that services are badly linked, forcing travellers crossing the city to route through the centre.

Traffic collisions claim the lives of two people every day. Vulnerable road users – typically travelling by exposed modes of transport like walking and cycling – account for more than 90% of fatalities and over half of these fatalities are pedestrians. This is part of a broader, worsening problem in India. Last year, road crashes cost the government about $8 billion, or 3% of the national gross domestic product. And this is as well as the financial, economic and emotional effect on the families affected.

 

Distribution of traffic fatalities in Mumbai by mode
In 2015, India's Supreme Court issued directives requiring all states to prepare road safety action plans.

In recent years, the Indian government has paid increasing attention to road safety due to international and domestic factors. Yet decrees from above have not translated into action on the ground. The Motor Vehicles Act – established almost 30 years ago – required that states create Road Safety Councils. Another 21 years passed before a Council was set up in Maharashtra – involving representatives from across the state government. But the Council has no authority to make any decisions, no backing in law, and no money. And their focus is on cars, not pedestrians or cyclists.

In 2010, the National Road Safety Policy was published. All levels of government are meant to prioritise safer infrastructure, safer vehicles and safer drivers, with states advised to create their own version of the national-level policy. But, in most cases, policies are duplicated, word for word, showing just how little thought is put into road safety at this lower level.

More positively, in the same year, public interest litigation demanding action on road safety was filed in Mumbai, and the resulting recommendations do seem to be having an impact: in 2016, for the first time in four years, the number of fatalities has dropped.