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Mumbai has taken the crown for being the most congested city on the planet. That’s according to the leading location technology specialist, TomTom.

Tell this to a resident of the city and they would tell you that this has become a reality that they have to live with day after day.

TomTom’s recent report detailed the traffic situation in 403 cities in 56 countries around the world. In fact, the report says that drivers in Mumbai can expect to spend an average of 65% extra travel time stuck in traffic. The cities that follow Mumbai in terms of congestion are Colombian capital, Bogota (63%), Lima in Peru (58%), New Delhi in India (58%) and Russian Capital, Moscow (56%).

TomTom Report

Why Mumbai?

Here’s an example to give you an idea of how bad the traffic situation in Mumbai can get. A drive from Mumbai’s western suburbs to the city centre, which is less than 25 kilometres in distance, would take less than an hour if the roads are empty. But come peak hours, the same distance takes two hours at the very least.  And if you thought this was bad, the situation gets only worse during the monsoons, when several roads in the city are waterlogged.

Speaking to Auto Futures, TomTom’s traffic expert Nicholas Cohn explained what is causing the congestion in Mumbai: “Looking at Mumbai specifically, one of the challenges for people is that congestion level varies with the time of day. Some people actually have to leave at leave 6 in the morning to avoid day traffic delays. The real challenge is in the evening, because it’s busy until way past 10 PM.”

“It’s very difficult to avoid congestion, which means that people are simply stuck in a very busy situation and there aren’t a lot of options in terms of time of day, except for early in the morning. And because of this, people stick to their normal patterns, because if they shift, for example, the time they went to work, it wouldn’t matter so much in Mumbai anyway.

But it isn’t only the fact that Mumbai is a very populated city, or even the fact that the city has been laid out in a certain way that’s actually causing congestion. The weather, or in this case, the season plays a huge role in the city’s traffic congestion.

“Looking at the statistics, the worst travel day that we measured in Mumbai in 2018 was August 21, and it looked to me that there was extremely heavy rain in Mumbai that day. And we see this across the world. Any extreme weather slows down the traffic speed and people lose more and more time,” says Cohn.

Nicholas Cohn

More jobs = more traffic

What comes across as quite a contradiction is the fact that Mumbai, unlike other cities in India, has a robust public transport ecosystem. In fact, the city’s local train network, which connects the centre to far-flung areas in the suburbs, has often been dubbed as its life and blood. Despite this, the fact that Mumbai is still so congested comes across as surprising.

Cohn says: “A big role to play here, like other parts across the world where congestion has gone up, is the fact that there are so many new jobs. If you put more new jobs in the same small space, with no big investment in new transportation, then that’s going to squeeze more people into the same infrastructure.”

He adds: “In a lot of countries, there has been a big effort to let people work from home for some of the days of the week. If you look at Mumbai, Friday seems to be the very worst day of the work week in terms of traffic, so for people to work from home then would be a good option to improve flexibility.”

City solutions in Asia

What could possibly be another factor contributing to congestion would be the fact that car ownership is often equated with status symbol in India, which means that viable solutions such as using public transport or availing ride-sharing services is not an option.

Cohn points out that there are other cities in the world facing a similar cultural phenomenon, and traffic congestion is definitely on a rise in these places

He says: “We’ve definitely seen this in cities in other countries; if car ownership has gone up, the congestion has definitely increased exceedingly fast. If I had to think of an example of such a city, where car ownership has gone up dramatically and where we have seen that effect, I’d definitely say Moscow. But in Moscow, to battle this, they made parking very restricted in the centre of the city and started charging money for it. And it did have an effect in terms of the number people driving into work every day and the car usage in the centre of the city.”

“Another city where we saw this was Jakarta. In Jakarta, car ownership is also growing incredibly fast and it also has very high congestion. The city’s population has also been growing very quickly. One of the things that they did recently because of this was that they instituted even and uneven driving days based on your vehicle registration. And it actually did make a difference.”

He adds: “I think another thing is looking at alternative modes. In India there are, probably, many other types of mobility on the road all at the same time. Encouraging some of those can really help. One example could be to make it safer for cycling or other non-motorised transportation. The state of the road can actually help reduce congestion.”

The Impact of EVs and AVs

Cohn doesn’t think newer forms of mobility will help reduce congestion any more than their present counterparts. They certainly may help reduce pollution levels, but unless there is a more structured and well-thought strategy to deal with this problem head on, it isn’t going to get any better for us.

He says: “I think on their own, electric and autonomous driving won’t necessarily reduce congestion, unless it’s done in a good way. For example, if we were able to convert everyone to EVs now, we would certainly improve air quality, assuming that the electricity is powered by clean sources. It would certainly improve the environment in cities immediately and that’s something that we should do. I’m hoping that, we move forward to more shared vehicle use, which includes buses and trains that are non-polluting, clean, electric.”

The same goes for autonomous driving. If everyone is driving a vehicle, except now it has automated driving capacity, that won’t reduce congestion.

“In fact, it could make it worse, because you could have somebody calling a car to come get them from a remote parking lot and the car is driving empty to pick up the owner. We don’t want that to happen. It is a situation where citizens, governments, automotive manufacturers, service providers and everybody else involved needs to be working together to use the tools at our disposal to really improve the situation all around,” Cohn concludes.

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