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Rio+20 challenge: expanding transportation to match growth in Mumbai

Mumbai's infrastructure is groaning under the pressure of its decade-long economic boom, as people travel for business and rising incomes put more private vehicles on the road.

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Clogged: Traffic halts in Mumbai, where commuters are switching to cars.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP/File

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On a hot June morning, Mohammed Idris Murtaza Ali inches his black-and-yellow taxi down a narrow lane in the heart of old Mumbai. The veteran cabby slows to go around a worker pulling a cart piled with pipes, hits the gas – then slows again for a double-parked van.

Mr. Ali says traffic has significantly worsened in the past eight years. "It's never been this painful to be on the roads," he says.

India's infrastructure is groaning under the pressure of its decade-long economic boom, as people travel for business and rising incomes put more private vehicles on the road. Nowhere is the pressure more palpable than on the congested streets of Mumbai, whose efforts to meet the needs of its 12.4 million population reflect the challenges faced by megacities the world over.

As cities increasingly drive economic growth, urban transit gains priority, says transport specialist Arun Mokashi. "But progress is slow," he says. "Many projects are still [realities only] on paper."

Among Indian cities, Mumbai is geographically unique. The port city has relied on an extensive railway system to bring workers from the suburbs in the north more than 37 miles to the business district in the south. "Access is what made Mumbai productive and prosperous," Mr. Mokashi says.

An upgrade to the 100-year-old train system is just one of several multibillion-dollar projects under way to expand rail and road capacity. Suburban trains are often called Mumbai's lifeline, carrying up to 7.4 million passengers daily. When they break down, as they did one day last month, traffic surges and business slows.

Each of the aging train cars was designed to hold 1,750 people, but they have been known to hold up to 5,000 during rush hour, a crush that's been eased slightly by upgrades funded by the $1.06 billion World Bank-financed Mumbai Urban Transport Project. Other projects include a metro, a monorail, new roads to the airport, a trans-harbor bridge, and a proposal for a $1.4 billion coastal road.

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