The present attempt to reduce the number of cars on the road is well-intentioned but misguided in the long-run unless there is the political will to adopt a wider set of restrictions
The Aam Aadmi Party government’s odd/even formula to manage Delhi’s traffic and curb pollution has been met with extreme opinions and impulsive reactions. Some have applauded Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s attempt to tackle these two seemingly intractable problems, while others, mostly those inconvenienced by the regulation, or by his style of politics, have been quick to criticise the plan.
The question, however, is not whether the odd/even formula will be complied with fully or will be spectacularly successful. Similar strategies have failed in other mega cities and have had modest success in some. More crucial is whether this new rule can serve as a catalyst for disrupting what has become the ‘’Delhi transport normal”.
What is the Delhi “normal”? Simply put, it is an archaic 20th century notion of urban transportation being played out in the 21st century. Vehicle ownership has become associated with class, wealth and prestige in Delhi. The appearance of status is more important than functionality, efficiency and the environment. Ironically, Delhi’s car obsession is actually far removed from the reality of those cities it is trying to emulate. Can the new rule change this paradigm?
The odd/even formula’s attempt to reduce the number of cars on the road is well-intentioned but misguided in the long-run unless there is the political will to adopt a wider set of restrictions. As in Beijing, the rule may result in car owners simply buying more cars to circumvent it. Rather than trying to target the number of cars on the road, then, the government would be wise to target the time vehicles spend on the road. Stagnant traffic has a greater causal relationship with environmental degradation and economic inefficiency than freely moving larger numbers. Can this be achieved under this new regime? May be not.
The odd/even rule’s other objective of improving air quality in the city may not be realistic either. In a recent study, it was shown that only 9% of Delhi’s bad air quality and environmental deterioration was caused by private vehicles. Given that two wheelers and certain commercial vehicles – that form the majority of automobiles on the road – have been exempted, the rule cannot be expected to improve air quality dramatically. A slight decrease in pollution levels has been noted since January 1 (data points are too small to draw any conclusions), but for the government to meet its own environmental goals, it will gradually have to bring other vehicles into the ambit of the odd/even formula. Will it have the stomach to do that?
What is clear is that to meet these ambitious goals, the odd/even rule is not enough. If Delhi traffic is to be managed, both regulatory and behavioural changes are required.
A question of disincentives, and social justice
First, the ruling must be supplemented by other initiatives. Car ownership has to be disincentivised. Measures can include car owners paying punitive taxes on each additional car, the imposition of a congestion charge on usage of arterial routes and making ownership of a vehicle difficult.
Global examples of such strategies include additional registration taxes on a second car in the same family; London, where congestion charges are imposed on certain zones to limit heavy traffic; and Singapore, whose Vehicle Quota System (VQS)makes vehicle prices nearly 3-5 times the actual cost. In Singapore, it is in fact more expensive to buy the right to purchase a car, then to buy the car itself. The 41% ad valorem custom duty on all cars does not make it cheaper either. But each of these cities were in the first instance able to create public transport infrastructure. It could be argued that perhaps Delhi is the best suited amongst Indian cities to embark on moving the middle class to public transport.
But for this, besides enacting rules and regulations, a behavioural shift among NCR residents is urgently required. The aim of the city’s government must be to catalyse the preference of the growing middle class towards a “new normal”. This attitudinal change, evident in global cities like New York, London, Singapore, Tokyo and others is rooted on the usage of public transportation rather than private car ownership. It is absolutely respectable for a CEO to use the subway or an office worker to ride the bus; and carpooling is in fact encouraged, with lanes of roads dedicated to those who carpool.
Another behaviour change that must be favourably considered is to dispel the notion that people must work in offices. In an age so intertwined with technology, it is unimaginable that physical presence in offices is still a requirement. To reduce the number of cars, this notion must be challenged and provisions to facilitate telecommuting, especially for non-essential personnel, by offering broadband charges as part of an employee’s income, as against a fuel allowance or conveyance costs, must become an attractive option.
Finally, Delhi must realise the social injustice embedded within the phenomenon of car ownership. Each car occupies real estate in a city that lacks space. Car owners are effectively squatters, occupying high value land – which they don’t own and which they don’t pay for – to park their vehicles, to ride across the city, to conduct personal and official engagements. This same land is denied to countless others in their pursuit of a basic livelihood. Hawkers and vendors are often turned away from setting up stalls in the pursuit of ample parking space. The right to luxury and leisure has eclipsed the right to a livelihood and if Delhi is to be a global city, it must address this imbalance immediately.
The jury’s out on the Delhi government’s ambitious experiment. But there is no denying the urban landscape will become unmanageable if corrective measures, at a structural, regulatory and behavioural level are not initiated. The “Delhi normal” should reflect a modern, sustainable ideology of urban governance that is rooted in social justice, propelled by new technologies and embraced by new attitudes. Otherwise, this city will remain stuck in the 20th century, no matter what regulation any government adopts.
Samir Saran is Vice President, Observer Research Foundation and Prashant Kumar is Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi