In a “Maximum City”


I’ve been reading “Maximum City,” by Suketu Mehta, an account of modern Mumbai (aka Bombay) written in 2004.  It came highly recommended, and it’s been an excellent read so far. 

In the first paragraph of the book, Mehta writes, “There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia. … With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers.  Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet.  God help us.” 

Mehta goes on to elaborate on the population density here:  “Singapore has a density of 2,535 people per square mile; Berlin, the most crowded European city, has 1,130 people per square mile.  The island city of Bombay in 1990 had a density of 17,550 people per square mile.  Some parts of central Bombay have a population density of 1 million people per square mile.  This is the highest number of individuals massed together at any spot in the world.” (p. 16)  I now find myself one of the 14 million densely packed people here—a humbling feeling.

Everywhere I turn there are people and cars and rickshaws.  It’s dangerous to stop while walking in many places—invariably someone will bump into me when I do so, and I bump into someone else if I turn without looking in all directions first.  Moving around here brings to mind a former US ambassador’s description of India as a “functioning anarchy.”  There are cars moving in every conceivable direction without regard to any traffic rules, but they get where they’re going and people seem to work with the flow. 

I just wonder what will happen as India’s economy continues to grow and the expanding middle class continues to aspire to owning a car.  In the U.S., the rate of car ownership is almost 500 vehicles per 1,000 people.  By my rough calculations, if the people living in that square mile of central Bombay with a population density of 1 million had the same rate of car ownership as the U.S., their square mile would be entirely paved in cars parked bumper to bumper, with a few cars stacked on top of each other.  Of course the people who live in that square mile are likely to move out before they purchase a car.  But the rising rates of car ownership on crumbling Mumbai roads that are already packed with vehicles is something to think about.

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