What is the biggest advantage of the odd-even scheme being introduced in Delhi for the second time? Reduced air and noise pollution? Reduced traffic congestion on roads and all the accompanying benefits of diminished road accidents, road rage and parking hassles? A boost to auto sales in the city? Promotion of egalitarianism, as the scheme applies to several “very important persons” too? Promotion of volunteerism, unity and cooperation among residents?
None of these, in my view. Simply because the odd-even scheme is not the right approach to dealing with any of these challenges faced by Delhi residents. At best, this approach can only provide some temporary respite. There is no substitute for a good network of public transport. Except for the Delhi Metro, which is gradually expanding its network, Delhi badly lacks other modes of public transport that are interconnected.
Yet the odd-even scheme is important for other reasons. The biggest advantage of the scheme is the sensitisation of people — the rich and the poor, men and women, adults and children (both current and future vehicle owners/ drivers) — about the problems faced due to too much traffic on roads.
If one were to apply a behavioural sciences lens, then the odd-even scheme may be doing more than just sensitising people. It may be fundamentally altering their behaviour over time. Insights from behavioural sciences suggest that human beings have two types of thought processes: Automatic and deliberative. While the automatic process is fast, effortless and associative, the deliberative process is slow, effortful and reflective. It’s the automatic thought process that influences most of our decisions and judgements. The odd-even scheme is forcing Delhi residents to switch from the automatic to the deliberative mode of thinking when deciding about their commuting needs. In so doing, it is forcing people to re-evaluate different transportation options and their travel needs, and revise their prior assumptions. This may not bear results immediately but could fundamentally change people’s behaviour over time in favour of using multiple modes of transportation and evaluating travel necessity.
Further, insights from behavioural sciences also suggest how social norms and preferences influence human decision-making and how this can shape collective behaviour within social groups and networks. Whether it is the success of group lending in Bangladesh that exploited the power of social sanctions or the boost to tax compliance in the UK when people were informed of the compliance norm in their region, interventions that are designed paying close attention to social norms and networks, and that have harnessed their influence, have tended to do better. This particular insight points towards the untapped potential of the odd-even scheme. The scheme could, for example, create effective role models by socially recognising those who come up with innovative ways — be it carpooling or combining alternate transportation modes or any other promising out-of-the-box solutions — to deal with the travel challenge when the scheme is operational. The scheme then needs to build upon these new ideas, images and messages to spread them to different social networks and change the current social norms.
The odd-even scheme has far-reaching ramifications. But those trying to adjudge the performance of the scheme by its effect on air quality in the city are applying too narrow a frame.
The AAP government deserves to be praised for being bold in experimenting with the odd-even idea. But implementing it on a regular basis would be a little premature before the public transport system, particularly the bus system and connectivity from metro stations, is developed further in a synchronised manner. Fortunately, the AAP government has time on its side, the transport system is well within its control, unlike, say, Delhi Police, and can potentially generate resources. By systematically cracking the public transport challenge in the city, the AAP government would not only have demonstrated itself to be a capable administrator but would have also showcased to the world how public transportation systems in a large metropolis can be fixed.
(This article appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘A Scheme For New Thinking’)