When traffic planners have nightmares, I’m fairly sure that the setting of their dreams is Kala Nagar junction.
This may sound overdramatic, but I’ve spent a lot of time there lately and, after a few visits and several terrifying hours navigating its weave, I can assure you it’s not. (If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the video above.)
As a pedestrian, Kala Nagar is a game of sprint, dodge, and pray. You accept that crosswalks here mean nothing and that the best hope you have of making it across one of the enormous stretches of road is squeezing between the cars when the traffic is stopped. Or, if you’re really brave, you skirt along the front of the pack as they inch forward, motors revving, champing at the bit to lurch forward at the blow of a whistle.
I can hardly imagine that the experience is any more joyful as a driver as you make a break from one side of the vast junction to the other, vehicles scattering and jostling around you with little external organization, in the hope of reaching the right exit among five off-roads. Or you might just be stuck sitting in your car, motorcycle, or rickshaw, bumper to bumper, withering in the seething heat while you lay on your horn in a vain attempt to gain that next foot of ground.
It’s the kind of heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping, ear-splitting chaos that ensues when you funnel 50,000 people in nearly 20,000 vehicles per hour from five different directions through less than a square half-kilometer without so much as one painted lane.
So why have I been spending my days in such place? I’ve been visiting Kala Nagar because it’s the site of a re-design competition spearheaded by local Lab Team member and sustainable transportation planner in Mumbai, Trupti Amritwar Vaitla. After all I’ve heard, I had to see it for myself.
It’s not the first time that people have attempted to retool this troubled junction. Kala Nagar and its laundry list of troubles is a pet topic of local newspapers—one that flares up often, whenever commuters die there, or when city agencies ignore yet another consultant’s recommendation for a fix.
And it’s not an easy nut to crack, either. The patchwork five-armed junction is situated directly on the border where Island City ends and the suburbs begin, and fringes the enormous new master-planned commercial center, the Bandra Kurla Complex. It is one of the only major east-west, north-south junctions in the entire city. And as the city’s heart and financial center shifts continuously northward (Mumbai’s geography actually looks much like New York’s, with the Island City center like Manhattan, and the northern suburbs roughly where the Bronx might be), and the ’burbs continue to grow, traffic at the junction is only growing— by a whopping 10 percent per year.
But Trupti, who has been my stalwart guide through the traffic of Kala Nagar, doesn’t expect the design competition to solve these large-scale issues. In fact, she says, yet another mega-project is the last thing that Mumbai needs. She’s hoping participants dig in and find small-scale, simple solutions that could make big differences to individuals.
“I hope people will submit ideas for small changes that would be easy to implement but that would really help make the day-to-day life of users here better—so that they can really see and believe that change is possible, and that it can be better,” she told me on one of our visits to the junction, screaming hoarsely over the roar of traffic into my voice recorder.
Such small-scale solutions could take many forms, she said: better signs to illuminate the presence of a nearly invisible and unused public toilet, for instance. Or more entrances to the often-locked and nearly abandoned park on the other side of the street. Or better facilities for the bus commuters who spill out onto the road as they wait, for lack of benches, despite the swath of unused and dilapidated space behind the stop.
“As much as what’s being overused, it’s about what’s being underused,” she says.
But more than anything, she hopes the competition will begin to address what she feels is a much greater issue in Mumbai, boiling out far beyond the bounds of Kala Nagar—the lack of dialogue around transportation issues, and the sense of empowerment to do something about it.
“Right now real users are not talking about the way Mumbai’s transportation is going. They are not necessarily even aware of their rights as pedestrians or bus commuters: that they have . . . an equal right as people who are using cars. That sense is not there,” Trupti says.
“There is a larger picture in terms of what kind of principles you’re basing your decisions on, and that is missing. Is it car-centric, is it pedestrian-centric? What is it? We need to open this debate. We need to open the discussion that everybody has an equal right to road space and time that it takes to travel.”
That she has a point becomes abundantly clear when she stands on the street corners trying to interview commuters, and receives only confused looks and some variation of, “Yeah, so it’s noisy and congested. What are we going to do about it?”
Well, the call for submissions has been made. I look forward to hearing the answers to that very good question.
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Photos and video: Christine McLaren