Delhi’s Diet Plan

At the very least, the odd-even policy will initiate a conversation on car use.

Written by Madhav Pai | Published: December 14, 2015 12:09 am
delhi pollution, delhi smog, NGT, odd even formula, odd even car formula, aam aadmi party, AAP, AAP government, delhi air pollution, Arvind Kejriwal The Delhi government should learn from experiences and design the details carefully.

Kudos to Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and all others in the Delhi government responsible for announcing a car-restriction programme. It is great to see city leaders realise that private vehicles cannot solve its mobility problem and start a diet programme. Even London needed 30 years of debate before a visionary mayor, Ken Livingstone, put in place a congestion tax.

In the last 20-30 years, Delhi has been building wider and faster roads as well as more flyovers to solve urban transport. Clearly, it hasn’t worked. Delhi has 10,000 km of roads, one of the highest road densities in the world. But this has only increased congestion and amplified associated externalities like air pollution and traffic fatalities.

People have got used to their private vehicles. Nobody understands the full cost of using a car. Nobody realises that 10 per cent of car users monopolise the bulk of the public asset that is roads. Parking is another huge subsidy a car owner receives. In addition, private vehicle users create huge social and environmental costs due to congestion, air pollution and road traffic deaths.

Several cities around the world, including Mexico City, Bogota, Sao Paulo and Santiago, have implemented licence-plate restrictions in various forms. Mexico City’s story resembles Delhi, where car restriction was started to counter the extremely high pollution levels in winter. The idea originated when air pollution levels were seen to drop significantly on car-free days, similar to Delhi’s Raahgiri initiative, where small sections of roads are car-free on Sundays. Vehicle restrictions in Mexico City began in 1987 as a voluntary initiative led by an environmental group. By 1989, the metropolitan area of Mexico City was faced with such high levels of atmospheric ozone that the government implemented a programme that banned the circulation of 20 per cent of all private vehicles on each weekday between 5 am and 10 pm. The ban was based on the last digit of the vehicle’s licence plate. Early results were good, with reduced fuel consumption, faster road speeds, etc. However, these gains were shortlived, as by 1995, about 22 per cent people had bought second cars. These second cars became notorious as “chocolate cars” for the colour of their exhaust, as they were cheaper, older, poorly maintained vehicles, bought with the purpose of circumventing the car restriction by those who could afford it.

Vehicle restrictions were first introduced in Bogota in 1998. Here, 40 per cent of private vehicles were prevented from operating in the city each day between 7 and 9 am and between 5.30 and 7.30 pm. Vehicles having any of four digits as the last digit of their number plate are restricted each day. Over the years, the programme has helped significantly reduce peak-hour congestion in Bogota. While congestion has reportedly worsened in the hours before and after the restriction period, peak-hour travel times have reduced by 40-50 per cent and car users have managed to change their schedules, organise car pools or use taxis. The reason Bogota succeeded where Mexico City struggled was that the initiative in Bogota was accompanied with implementation of the bus rapid transit (BRT) and cycling infrastructure. This ensured that public transport was boosted to deal with the added influx of people and did not choke with the additional pressure.

The Delhi government should learn from these experiences and design the details carefully. For example, policies and rules to prevent second-car purchases should be envisioned. Research shows that middle-class or lower-middle-class women are most impacted by this policy. The needs of these groups should be understood and alternatives like carpools and taxis should be presented to them. An accompanying campaign targeted to improve women’s security in buses and other public spaces should be started.

This is a good short-term measure that helps initiate a much-needed conversation on restricting motor-vehicle use. In the medium term, there are complementary measures to make our urban transport system more accessible and equitable that should be taken. One, roads must be made safer for people to walk and cycle. Two, the speed and quality of bus-based mass transport, including BRT, must improve. Three, there needs to be multimodal integration through schedule, fare and physical integration. Finally, progressive regulations for emerging shared mobility trends like ridesharing, carpooling, shared bicycles and taxi aggregators should be followed.

The writer is India director, the WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities.

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  1. K
    Dec 14, 2015 at 7:30 am
    This is a beginning. There have been many obnoxious laws hitherto. But this is at least an initiative. The CM must contain his ministes and legislators from flouting the norms. Meanwhle a more comprehensive policy must be framed.
    1. C
      Col S
      Dec 14, 2015 at 9:08 am
      Cars have THREE sins to its credit. Parking FIGHTS in residential area, TR AFFIC JAMS and POLLUTION. This will certainly REFUCE POLLUTION and JAMS. May reduce the PARKING problems in the CITY as well as residences. WE ALL !UST. ACCEPT IT.
      1. N
        Niladrinath Mohanty
        Dec 14, 2015 at 3:31 am
        The author completely ignores the menace of highly polluting two stroke engine vehicles like two and three wheelers that use the lubricant directly in the fuel. The number of aforementioned two stroke vehicles have grown by leaps and bound in cities like Bhubaneswar. Pollution may not be a big problem today for these cities but time will catch up. If we take an overall view m transport should not only be expanded but should be subsidised too.
        1. G
          Dec 14, 2015 at 8:46 am
          I agree fully with this article. I have a feeling that we Indian (mainly because of Hinduism) have a natural environmental consciousness. However, because we think only about individual practices and never like social restriction our rivers and cities have become nearly unusable especially in the short span of time (60 yrs) since we became an independent country. I see that in the next 25 years private cars will become anathema. Our eagerness to build roads and cities will have to take a back seat. We need to find happiness in not using up commodities. We need to distribute amenities more equitably rather than in pockets of wealth makers as crony capitalism has been teaching for over three centuries. We need more non-Marxist socialist policies which are restrictive of capricious individual freedom. We must impose policies that we think are morally right and not harmful to individuals. Selfish individual desire is not a God as capitalism teaches.
          1. T
            Thomas George
            Dec 14, 2015 at 9:27 am
            If littering everywhere outside our own homes, and diverting sewage and industrial effluents to storm drains and rivers is natural environmental consciousness, then we have droves of it. Individual freedom is sacred in a democracy, but fixing costs on harm done to others is also a part of democracy. A private vehicle should be charged extra for the additional pollution it imposes on the general public.
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