Mumbai makes do

It’s a transit system where you’re expected to jump on and off moving vehicles, where agonizingly poor children ask you for spare change while you’re waiting at a station, and where a layer of sweat and soot covers every surface.

But it’s also a transit system with charm. Can you imagine buying a cup of chai for 11 cents while on your morning commute from Finch to King? Clutching a handrail while sticking your head out of the Lakeshore GO train? Waiting on the Dundas streetcar for a cow to pass? While such occurrences are unimaginable in Toronto, they’re a part of everyday life in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), India.

One weekend afternoon as I was riding the train, I found myself wondering whether Mumbai could teach us anything about public transit. Here in Toronto, we tend to look to such cities as London, New York, or Tokyo when coming up with ideas for improving our own system. But is that necessarily the best approach? If we’re looking for innovation and resourcefulness, wouldn’t we be more likely to find them in cities where they must make do with much less?

“Making do with much less” ought to be the motto of Mumbai’s public transit system. Its charm aside, almost seven million riders use its creaking trains and buses every day, and millions more use taxis and autorickshaws, little three-wheeled, canvas-topped contraptions suitable for short trips within a city. The system generally operates with few delays, at least outside monsoon season. And even by Indian standards, it’s affordable. A dime gets you on a bus, a quarter gets you by train from downtown to the outer suburbs, and a toonie is good for a 20-minute cab ride through rush-hour traffic.

An obvious shortcoming of Mumbai’s system, it must be said, is passenger safety. Overcrowded trains have led to people falling out of moving trains, and provided incentives for passengers to engage in horribly unsafe practices, such as hanging out of the sides of trains or even climbing on top of them – unwise at the best of times, but lethal when the trains are powered by overhead electrical wires. Similarly, people all too often choose to forego pedestrian overpasses in favour of crossing directly over the rail tracks. Safety is definitely an area where Mumbai could learn from us – and it’s doing so, albeit gradually, through recent measures including a long-term initiative funded by the World Bank.

While it’s unquestionable that Mumbai’s rail safety must be improved, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should disregard the good points of its system. Compelled to get such vast numbers of people in, through, and out, Mumbai innovates by adopting design measures that can safely shave seconds or even minutes from each individual ride. Busy train stations – far busier than Union Station or even the Bloor-Yonge interchange at rush hour – are built with extra-wide staircases and corridors. Almost all train stations are connected to their neighbourhoods via multiple points of access that distribute passenger flow evenly and prevent the bottlenecks that occur at such stations as Davisville or College. Delays at turnstiles or ticket queues are minimized through a pricing scheme that encourages the use of passes, thereby reducing the number of people who must fumble for individual tickets, tokens, or, worst of all, exact change.

The same principle extends to the design of individual vehicles. In Mumbai, buses can generally be boarded from the front or rear. While we’ve adopted limited measures such as the proof-of-payment scheme on the Queen streetcar or the occasional transit officer allowing people to enter Spadina streetcars from the rear, it remains all too common for us to queue behind people funnelling through the lone door at the front of a bus or streetcar. (Other design measures to save time, such as the removal of doors on trains, may not be advisable for the Toronto context!)

Of course, innovation isn’t just about the design of stations and vehicles. It also encompasses the way in which the overall system is put together. Mumbai enjoys a combined commuter-urban rail system that connects its vibrant downtown to the shantytowns that ring the core, and then to its generally prosperous suburbs. There aren’t separate systems for such different regions as South Bombay, the Western suburbs (Bandra, Juhu, Andheri), the Chembur district, and Greater Mumbai. It’s all one system, meaning that the same rail lines go from the urban hub to multiple points in the suburbs, with stations all along the way. Practically, this improves people’s access to all parts of the region. Conceptually, it promotes a greater sense of collective identity.

Contrast this to the Toronto region, where we’ve drawn a sharp distinction between commuter and urban transit. Each city within the region operates its own transit system – the Toronto Transit Commission, Mississauga Transit, York Region Transit, and so on – that primarily serves people travelling to and from points within each city, and GO Transit is an entirely separate operation, which primarily serves people who commute between the outlying suburbs and the area immediately around Union Station in Toronto’s downtown. These systems don’t fit together particularly well. There are relatively few points of interchange from one system to another, and even where such points exist, riders must pay a second fare if they switch from one system to another in the course of their journey.

In an earlier era, this patchwork of systems might have made sense. It’s doubtful, however, whether it does any longer in the face of increasingly blurry municipal boundaries. As Toronto’s downtown has grown, and as new hubs of commerce and industry rise up throughout the city, fewer and fewer commuters view Union Station as their final destination. In turn, growing numbers of Torontonians “reverse-commute” to the 905 region, and very few of them begin their journeys from Union Station, or indeed any of the other 17 GO stations within the city limits.

In the March 2006 provincial budget, we heard a bit about the creation of a Greater Toronto Transportation Authority. What might it look like if it were modelled after Mumbai? First, it might involve making greater use of the GO rail corridors that slice through the city. Currently, people living in reasonably dense neighbourhoods like Brockton, Riverdale, or The Junction live along rail lines that fail to serve them in any way. Putting new rail stations along these corridors would instantly improve access for thousands of people to public transit. Second, it might provide some political oxygen to the plans to extend Toronto’s subways into the denser – or soon-to-be dense – areas of the immediate suburbs, whether north from Finch into Thornhill, northwest from Downsview into Vaughan, or west from Kipling into Mississauga. Third, improved interchanges between the systems, most notably at Dundas West and Main/Danforth but also at other locations in the city, would facilitate passenger flow and access to more parts of the city.

A final source of innovation is Mumbai’s integration of different modes of transit. It’s a city where riders are expected to combine different modes of transit into one journey. It’s perfectly common, for example, for people to take an autorickshaw from their suburban home to a suburban rail station, take a train into downtown, and then take a taxi from that train station to their final destination. And this system works because there are few delays when switching from one mode of transit to another. In Toronto, alternatively, how many people are frustrated by these delays and choose instead to take a single mode of transit – almost always a car – that gets them directly from their point of origin to their destination?

Intermodal transit means different things in different cities. In the Mumbai context, it might mean greater use of taxi and autorickshaws. In the Toronto context, it might mean encouraging the use of bicycles, perhaps through significantly more bike parking facilities at train stations, and bike racks on buses and streetcars. It might also mean making greater use of smaller, more nimble surface vehicles, like buses or even shared taxis, that can penetrate residential neighbourhoods less intrusively – an idea that might be worth considering on its own merits in the face of rising fuel costs.

Looking elsewhere for ideas about public transit means looking not only to the usual list of cities, but also to places where they must make do with much less. If two of the goals of a transit system are to move people quickly and cheaply from one point to another, Mumbai somehow succeeds in the face of overwhelming odds against it. If a third goal of a transit system is to move people safely, Mumbai is borrowing ideas from us – and strengthening its system as a result. In both cases, a strategy of adopting good ideas, no matter how unexpected the source, could endow both cities with even stronger public transit systems.