While such initiatives are likely to work for shorter periods when pollution levels are too high, for people to change their travel habits and leave their cars for public transport, walking and cycling, there needs to be considerable public investment in these areas — and a change of mindset. What makes solutions efficient is an understanding that human behaviour can be a game changer
Every winter in Delhi, we complain about the fog turning into “smog”, children becoming asthmatic and the elderly given to wheezing fits. This year, my friend couldn’t prepare for the November Airtel marathon for fear that running in the morning would make him, and his friends, sick. He ran, but many couldn’t. My daughter’s sports day got cancelled because the children couldn’t practice.
We take our cars out for as short a distance as half a kilometre to buy milk or go to the ATM, for a kilometre to drive our children to their music class or tuition, and for three kilometres to drop them to school. We take our cars out to reach offices, movie halls and malls located next to metro stations and bus stops.
We complain about the pollution, the smoke and the congestion, wondering why somebody does not do something about it. And when somebody does try to do something about it, we complain about that too.
When pollution levels in Delhi became dangerously high (10 times higher than the acceptable standards as per WHO), and data (from a credible IIT Kanpur study) showed that vehicular pollution is the major (and the most avoidable) reason for this, the Delhi government decided to do something about it. Starting from 1 January 2016, for a test period of 15 days, the government plans to reduce the number of cars on the road at peak times on week days by means of an odd-even formula – cars with odd number plates will be permitted on the road on odd dates and those with even number plates will be allowed on even dates from 8 am to 8 pm.
The proposed initiative has sparked a huge debate across media and social networks. The world of Whatsapp chats, Facebook and Twitter have been flooded with views and counter-views, imaginative jokes and cartoons; and, needless to say, it is the hottest topic over coffee and chai, and the office water cooler. As I see it, from the vantage point of a transport planner, the initiative is a success even before it has been launched for the simple reason that everybody is talking about how cars contribute to air pollution in Delhi – big cars with single occupants more than others. No public campaign could have generated the level of awareness that has been created among the people of Delhi by this intense month-long debate. We experts tend to get into technicalities, often not realising that in the ultimate analysis, the success of all such initiatives rests as much on a change of people’s mindset as on so-called ‘efficient’ solutions. In fact, what makes solutions efficient is an understanding that human behaviour can be a game changer.
There has been no simulation of the odd-even initiative with real-time data, so there are no exact figures of the number of cars that could potentially be off the road – the proposal estimates a halving of numbers but it could even be less. In fact, surprising as it may sound, exact figures on the number of cars that actually are on the road are not readily available as the registration data by itself does not give real-time data on the actual numbers plying on the road; the last city wide traffic volume count was done in 2008 in Delhi. So it is safe to say that a certain number of cars will be off the road but maybe not as many as we think.
Of course, a detailed study and simulation could be attempted but it would take at least nine months to be done effectively. Moreover, a simulation can never quite capture the vagaries of human behaviour. A 15-day pilot backed with some actual number-counting (one hopes the government will do that) could be a far quicker way to test its efficacy.
Also, while the effect in terms of pollution reduction, despite the odd-even formula, may be marginal because of the sheer number of cars on the road, it could still lead to an additional reduction in pollution because less congestion will mean less idling exhaust at intersections. In any case, what do we stand to lose by trying?
Spectrum of solutions
As a transport planner one is all too aware of the sustainable solutions to the problem of bad air-quality:
- building safe and comfortable pedestrian paths and crossings to enable those one kilometre walking trips;
- building cycle tracks and cycle parking for the three to four kilometre trips;
- regulatory restructuring to support cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, taxis and other intermediate public transit;
- more buses, better bus stops, better passenger information systems;
- integrating all of these into the metro system to create seamless movement in the city; and
- a citywide parking policy (as already put together by the Delhi Development Authority’s Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning & Engineering) Centre, which is dynamically priced by the cost of real estate and time of day.
We know all these sustainable and low-carbon solutions but they are achievable in the medium to long term; moreover, they require investment, institutional restructuring and time. Dire situations require drastic measures and the Delhi government has decided to test one – halving or reducing the number of cars on the road during peak times on weekdays by means of the odd-even formula. This 15-day pilot run, with several exemptions (including for CNG, electric and hybrid cars), will be fortified by a doubling of the bus fleet (using school buses as all schools will be closed during that period), extension of metro services, and a proposed car-pooling app. Even for the 15-day pilot there is an effort to ensure that there are no negative impacts on the mobility of the disabled, the safety of women, and education of children.
Interestingly, several entrepreneurs are taking the opportunity of this pilot run to test out initiatives like ride-sharing; car-pooling apps have already gained immense traction in the city. Also, one must keep in mind that dynamic bus ride sharing systems like Shuttl – bus aggregating platforms offering shuttle services – have been tested out with some success in Gurgaon (though the archaic Motor Vehicles Act, which does not allow for innovations in public transit, has brought this initiative to a halt). If private entrepreneurs are getting into the game with alternative mobility options for car users, could it be that Delhi-wallahs, fed up with traffic jams, are ripe for a change in their travel behaviour that the odd-even formula could trigger?
The pilot proposal has been met with incredulity, cynicism and it-will-never-work looks by the wise and the elite. Experiences of similar initiatives in Mexico City and the Nigerian capital Lagos have shown that in the longer run people just buy more cars, the second one usually more polluting. On the other hand, similar measures worked in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics and in Paris during periods of severe air pollution, which goes to show that they do work if used as a demand management measure for shorter periods of time.
Such experiences demonstrate that while such initiatives are likely to work for shorter periods when pollution levels are too high, for people to change their travel habits, leave their cars for public transport, walking and cycling, there needs to be a great deal of public investment in these areas.
The scepticism regarding the effectiveness of the odd-even formula stems from other concerns as well. There is an apprehension that it would be impossible to enforce (the traffic police stands to make a lot of money from car owners wishing to be undisturbed), and that it will give rise to fraudulent practices like using fake number plates and number stickers available in the black market. In other words, car owners will use their ingenuity and money to ensure that the initiative fails. And then we can say, with I-told-you so looks, that Delhites can never change. And we will keep complaining about the rising pollution.
January 1-15 is a test run to see if the Delhi government’s odd-even scheme will work. But more than that, it is a test run to see if we, the citizens of Delhi, will let it work – whether we really care about our children enough to make it work or are content to buy air purifiers and rail against the terrible scourge of air pollution from our ever so fragile pockets of ‘purified’ air.
Anvita Arora, a transport planner, has been working on sustainable transport planning for the past 15 years.