There is much talk in Delhi about the trial period of the odd-even rule. The objective of the move was to reduce traffic and pollution. The trial lasted 15 days and although the jury is still out about whether the air was cleaner, there is broad consensus that congestion on the roads was reduced.
This may result in a quick conclusion that the reason for the traffic mess is that we have too many vehicles on the road. That would be a leap of faith. Sure, fewer vehicles would always lead to less congestion. But that is only part of the problem.What can be done
A framework we can use is to look for structural and behavioural reasons. There are many structural reasons for the mess on our roads. The roads are not wide enough, potholes cause people to drive erratically, lack of pavements or their diversion to other uses puts pedestrians on the road, vehicles of different speeds compete for the same space, and so on.
We pay more attention to these structural causes as they deal with the ‘other,’ and they are relatively easier to fix. Sometimes structural solutions can be used to fix behavioural problems. Bengaluru likes to put layers of roads one on top of the other! We put up dividers on the road because traffic does not stick to its side of the road. We put speed breakers because people do not follow the signs stipulating a lower speed limit.
An examination of the behavioural side of the problem is ignored as it requires introspection. How do we drive? Take a simple example of sticking to lanes. This is meant to ensure that there is a steady flow of traffic to handle the volume. When traffic moves steadily, a larger volume can be cleared at a point as compared to a situation when there are interruptions to a flow. Any student of operations management would have solved problems of this nature using first semester linear programming models. Traffic on US roads often backs up for several miles just because the drivers suddenly slow down to view an accident in a lane in the opposite direction.
An observer of Indian roads will find several behavioural dysfunctionalities causing obstructions to flow. The desire to get ahead of the vehicle in front makes people weave which interrupts flow. At a traffic light, vehicles squeeze between lanes to get to the front of the line and they are usually the slower moving traffic and hence the entire flow is disrupted. Slower moving traffic occupy all lanes causing faster moving traffic to constantly switch lanes. These behavioural issues are harder to fix. A few signs in English that say ‘Observe lane discipline’ do not help since few understand what ‘lane discipline’ means, even if they can read English.
Behavioural change requires multi-faceted interventions. Public-interest advertising that show the right and wrong way and explaining why, is required. Traffic wardens are needed to pull violators aside and explain to them their errors, perhaps give them a hand-out and even fine, if necessary. Children in schools need to be taught road rules so they watch over the adults and become better drivers when they grow up. The curriculum of driving schools needs to be audited. Taxi and commercial vehicles need to be given material to help in driver training. All of this requires concerted effort and coordination across several agencies. And it takes time.
The writer is a professor at Jindal Global Business School, Delhi NCR and at Suffolk University, Boston
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