A fresh round of the odd-even scheme on Delhi’s roads could be imminent under the Supreme Court order of December 2, 2016. The apex court has ruled that the scheme will be compulsorily enforced if air pollution reaches the defined “emergency” or severe+ grade (that is when air quality crosses the 2.5 level of 300 micrograms per cubic metre and stays so for 48 hours continuously).
Pollution in Delhi is a growing emergency and could reach real dangerous levels if treated with the usual sluggish, ad hoc measures. There are an unstoppable number of private cars, adding their share of pollution to Delhi every day, while at the same time, the public transport system in the Capital is highly inadequate with a reported 50 per cent shortage in buses.
The Delhi government’s bold decision to introduce the odd-even formula early this year, a first since Independence, has, unfortunately, not been taken forward. It could have been, in many innovative ways. The reintroduction of the same formula, under the Supreme Court’s instant orders, may not produce the intended results unless further options are explored.
For example, in addition to the odd-even run, the concept of a car pool lane (CPL) can be adopted. This system was first applied, though not exactly as an alternative to the odd-even formula, in the US in 1969. Called the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) facility, it continues to be in place in a number of other countries such as Canada, parts of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and China. These countries have adopted the CPL to suit their varying needs; they have gradually evolved over time.
The CPL formula reserves one lane, the fastest, on selected roads for cars carrying more than one occupant. Single occupant cars are thus confined to the remaining lanes. The greater number gets priority. Not the affluent, opulent, single fellow traveller. As Jeremy Bentham, the British social reformer of the 18th century, puts it: “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.”
The CPL encourages both even and odd numbered cars to carry more people and ensures them a speedier journey. Hence, a reduced number of cars on the road. It also encourages willing participation of car owners, thus promoting happy sharing and car pooling. A 2005 compilation in the US revealed interesting data: The HOV facility in the morning peak hours carried nearly 32,000 people in 8,600 vehicles when other lanes carried 23,500 people in 21,300 vehicles. The travel time was 29 minutes in the CPL as against 64 minutes in the other lanes.
The CPL has yet another, very important dimension to it. An old slogan in Delhi used to counsel: Lane driving is sane driving. Today, not a single road in Delhi can claim to be remotely close to international road-marking norms. Indeed Delhi, the national capital city, should be leading the way. In road-unsafe cities like Delhi, where unruly criss-cross driving is more of a rule, the car pool lane can provide a significant incentive toward cultivating a more civilised driving culture.
It may, of course, be questioned if such a system can be operated on city roads in India. It is a valid doubt but ways can be explored and put in place selectively. For example, in some of the more dense traffic cities, and in some of their zones covering important services and institutions, a beginning can be made. The nitty-gritty of such a system will need to be worked out: Whether the CPL should be enforced 24×7, or only on working days, or during certain designated hours? Whether to fix the minimum number of occupants in a car at two or more? Which other vehicles, like bikes, emergency vehicles, chartered buses can use the CPL?
Demarcation of such a lane with all possible safety considerations will also need careful attention; more importantly, details of how the system can be enforced will have to be worked out, and followed meticulously.
The US and other countries, for example, impose very heavy fines on violators of the CPL. As the CPL will be applied to limited areas, monitoring arrangements through technology and manual checks can be effectively mounted. To further facilitate the CPL and odd-even working, as well as fighting pollution, use of public transport can be made free of charge for a limited period when pollution attains uncontrollable levels, as Paris did recently.
It is high time that the CPL facility is put in place in important, fast-growing urban areas across the country, in addition to or irrespective of the odd-even system. This is necessary, both to help leash galloping pollution and to supplement the already stressed public transport system.
There will be many doubts and difficulties, and as we move on, there would be matching answers and options to meet and smoothen the CPL process. Will some state chief ministers, some enthusiastic field administrators take the call?