Traffic moves slowly in the crowded streets of Old Delhi in this photo taken on September 7, 2014. Photo: iStock
Traffic moves slowly in the crowded streets of Old Delhi in this photo taken on September 7, 2014. Photo: iStock

The monsoon’s farewell turns the Himalayas near Rishikesh in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand into an emerald-green earthly heaven, but at 4am on Monday, I start a journey across territory that also becomes a seasonal lottery of life and death. Rain and traffic-loosened soil make National Highway 58, the road to my destination beyond the Valley of Flowers – near the China-Tibet border – vulnerable to landslides that can smash villages and unwary vehicles.

In mountains or global metros, burdening Mother Nature with heavy traffic causes problems demanding complicated solutions, with  infrastructure planners often attending to the effect but ignoring the cause.

I left Mumbai undergoing one such attempted solution to intensifying commuting woes. “Mumbai is upgrading,” blue-green boards announce across South Mumbai, where massive engineering operations have begun extending the city’s underground railway.

“No pain, no gain,” as we say, and the Mumbai Metro’s gains seem to  be starting with a painful seven-year upheaval until its scheduled completion in 2022: major traffic diversions, businesses and residences having entrances blocked, Internet cables and soon perhaps electricity connections disrupted. And then the mind-numbing clank-clank of heavy construction machinery digging deep all day and into the night, the nightmarish noise like from some monster awakened in subterranean Earth.

Workers walk past fencing at a construction site for the Mumbai Metro project – a familiar signboard now across South Mumbai, and maybe so for the next seven years. 

Obviously the Mumbai Metro project is needed and overdue, with road traffic suffocating with more than 500 new cars added daily. India’s financial capital is heading the way of the US financial capital, New York. But the New York City Subway, with more than 460 stations, began functioning in 1904, while the Mumbai Metro project, with plans for an initial 169 stations, began tearing up a busy megacity with a population of 20.7 million only in 2016.

Cut-and-cover construction of New York City’s first subway at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Manhattan, April 26, 1904. The first Manhattan subway line from City Hall Station started operating on October 27, 1904. The Mumbai Metro may be better late (by more than 100 years) than never.

Delays and disasters loom. The US$3.5 billion South Mumbai corridor – connecting the Cuffe Parade-Churchgate-Fort business district with domestic, international airports and northern suburbs – was supposed to be finished last year. Instead, work started this year, through overcrowded roads, and problems were dug up every kilometer of the way. Some Mumbai residents went to court to protest against venerable peepal and banyan trees being felled.

India is in a massive infrastructure “upgrade” mode, including Uttarakhand state. Work has begun there on an “all-weather” road and an ambitious railway line to connect Rishikesh to the upper Himalayas. For now, choked traffic can sometimes mean it takes more than three hours to drive 20 kilometers, and harried Himalayan residents are bitterly tasting urban snarls.

Yet the pressure for infrastructure expansion seems doomed to be endless, like a bottomless bucket that can never be filled – until mindsets change about commuting and travel.

Problems will increase as long as owning the latest Porsche 911 or BMW M5 becomes a social declaration of success and wealth, instead of travel being considered an essential exercise of getting from point A to B in the most efficient, convenient, and comfortable time.

Traffic crawls on Mumbai’s Marine Drive on December 4, 2009, while suburban residents spend an average of nearly four hours daily commuting to work.

Three years ago, the United Nations Development Program estimated  that traffic jams cost even the sparsely car-populated city of Dhaka $3.86 billion in productivity losses each year. The Bangladeshi capital  has about three cars per 1,000 people, compared with 700 per 1,000 people in some developed countries.

When the car-population boom and daily traffic jams have reached Himalayan roads, the urban world faces some serious commuting trouble.

More city zones may be forced to go the way of Matheran, a hill town near Mumbai famous for fiercely guarding its “no cars allowed” status.

If the world evolves the Matheran way, car owners in AD 5025 might be regarded as favorably as slave owners. But until then infrastructure experts need to think out of the box.

For instance in Rishikesh, a “Flying Fox” adventure ride traverses the Ganges as part of a bungee-jumping jamboree during the tourist season. I saw folks being whisked at speeds of more than 100km/h across a 1km distance, in a way that might inspire future urban engineers: from wired cable cars flying above skyscrapers (with terraces perhaps as takeoff and landing points), to flying bicycles hurled forth between magnetized cables, with pedaling feet generating some kinetic energy.

Retro illustration of a couple in a futuristic electric car that drives on the road, flies in the air, and functions as a boat. That was in 1952; no sign yet of such a wonder vehicle. 

Since bus commutes do not seem too popular, the signature image of that flying bicycle in Steven Spielberg’s movie E.T. come to mind; and if human ingenuity can factory-produce Boeing 777s and Airbus A380s to fly 350 to 850 passengers at 870km/h, similar masterminds can produce some way for John and Jane Doe to fly safely to the office and back home daily. Maybe in another lifetime, I will be able to indulge my love for flying many times a day.

We often limit ideas and concepts to our very limited lifespans, compared with the billions of years of age of the Earth, of galaxies and, as my teacher of practical truth said, of certain celestial beings living for so many eons they get deluded into thinking they are immortal and beyond change.

With change being constant, wonder what Mumbai’s Jamshedji Tata Road, New York’s Lafayette Street, Hong Kong’s historic Hollywood Road, Melbourne, Innsbruck, Kathmandu, and Bangkok might look like not just in the year 5025, but in AD 15,525 … possibilities then soar beyond limits, and flying safely to the office and back in a few minutes does not seem such a far-fetched idea.

Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.