Without changes to transport infrastructure, the new traffic-limiting proposals will not work, Sudakshina Gupta writes.
The Delhi government’s attempt to curb pollution and congestion on Delhi roads is not a novel idea. It is merely an imitation of the policies already initiated in Beijing and Singapore, both of which failed.
The measure, which begins in Delhi for a trial period on January 1 2016 and involves having cars with number plates with even and odd numbers on roads on alternate days, is supposed to reduce the number of vehicles by half. Before this policy is implemented, some issues need to be raised and questions need to be answered.
The number of cars on roads can be reduced only if an alternative transport system can be developed. This calls for improvement of mass transportation. One bus in place of 60 small cars may reduce pollution, but there would need to be a proper pollution checking policy. One bus in place of 60 small cars will reduce congestion on roads if traffic management is efficient.The introduction of attractive and comfortable buses in regular supply is, therefore, imperative. The metro rail service in Delhi is modern, non-polluting and state-of–the-art. However, a complementary feeder service to serve the metro is essential. To reduce the number of auto rickshaws, which are also responsible for congestion and pollution, a bus service will have to be developed to serve as a feeder. This raises further questions: How practical will it be for buses to act as a feeder? Can buses access all the roads? Large buses accommodating the passengers of 60 small cars can operate on main roads only. Will the regular passengers agree to walk daily to reach the bus stops? Are the Delhi roads suitable for walking? Stretches of road are long in Delhi, and bicycling may be strenuous or simply not a choice for commuters.
Besides all this, will it be possible to supply enough sufficiently large buses to deal with the office-hour or peak-hour rushes? And will there be separate bus bays on roads for rapid transit? The introduction of a more developed car pool system for office-goers may help, but will commuters sacrifice the comfort of travelling in their cars? If, after all this, the number of absentees in offices increases due to an inadequately equipped public transport system, then how will the government work? A critical problem will be to administer the policy between 8am and 8pm, as people needing public transport during those times could face genuine problems in accessing the service.
The next question is whether the buses will be provided by the government or the private sector? Will it be possible for the government to carry the costs of additional buses, of course at a subsidised fare, in an ever-expanding city like Delhi? If the private sector is given the ultimate responsibility, traffic management and fare control may go out of government hands.
In any case, the government may not be able to add to its revenues at all. Income from petrol taxes will be lost by reducing the number of cars on roads. Some factors from both the demand and the supply sides – such as the central government policy of encouraging the small car industry and the importing of cars, the availability of easy loans and increasing disposable income – have seen an increase in car ownership. These have added to the woes of the state governments who are now desperate to find a solution but cannot go to the root of the problem. The small car industries no doubt have generated employment both in manufacturing and maintenance and in related industries such as drivers.The Delhi government may have good intentions of making Delhi more liveable, but before a policy is adopted and implemented which simply imitates that of other growing cities of the world, these issues need to be solved and answers found. It is the duty of the government to look after the comfort of citizens, and not to make their lives more difficult with arbitrary policies. And, even after sticking to this policy, the government may find themselves in the soup, if the Delhi’ites start imitating Beijing and Singapore citizens by buying two cars each, with odd and even number plates!
Instead of restricting the number of small cars on the roads, banning diesel cars and introducing clean fuel and compressed national gas (CNG) may help reduce pollution. Construction of additional road and related infrastructure may reduce congestion. Other forms of energy, like electricity and solar, could also be tried on a greater scale. All this is time-consuming and the society and the economy needs to be prepared for such a transition.
Buying personal cars may be discouraged at the source, but that will involve changing government economic policy which has been in place since liberalisation. Ultimately, economic growth and more economic activities mean more mobility and hence more transport. The solution to Delhi’s pollution and congestion problems needs to be carefully thought through.