The world’s cities put up roadblocks

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on January 08, 2019

As air quality in Delhi deteriorates, it may be time to look at what other global cities are doing to cut down automobile use

Consider two cities: Delhi and London. In the final days of 2018, the Delhi government flagged off a trial run for its first e-buses. The government’s looking to add 1,000 electric and 3,000 CNG buses to DTC’s fleet by end-2019 and also aims to build sleek, modern bus terminals to spur people to switch from private transport and taxis to buses. It’s become evident, though, that far more needs to done to reduce pollution as the air quality index hits new highs and grey skies become the Delhi norm.

London, by contrast, was an early starter in discouraging car use and is world leader among big cities in putting up roadblocks to automobiles. Its congestion charges slashed the number of vehicles using the central zone by 39 per cent between 2002 and 2014 and now London Mayor Sadiq Khan, in his crusade to improve air quality, is planning even more aggressive measures to curb car use.

With vehicular pollution accounting for one-third of overall pollution in Delhi, stiff anti-car measures are crucial here too to reduce the dense smog over the city and much of north India. In parts of Delhi, the air quality index has topped 600 (the WHO calls any reading over 25 harmful), making it the most polluted mega-city globally. Cross the border and Lahore and Islamabad residents are also breathing dangerously toxic air.

Successive Delhi governments and the courts have attempted to devise solutions for Delhi’s grey pall of pollution but their actions have been scattershot. The new BS-VI cleaner fuels are already selling in Delhi and, in October, NTPC’s ageing Badarpur power station closed. Then, as pollution climbed in the past week, new restrictions were placed on trucks entering Delhi and on construction.

But as environmentalist Vimlendu Jha notes, the government constantly relies on short-term solutions that lack consistency, like the swiftly withdrawn court-ordered ban on SUV registrations. Says Jha: “We need to talk about air and not just when the air quality is above 400. The conversation needs to be year-round.”

Around the world, other big cities are facing major pollution problems, though obviously not as bad as Delhi’s, and they’ve instituted tough and costly — for the motorist — moves to reduce automobile usage. From April, London will charge drivers of older petrol and diesel cars a £12.50 fee on top of the existing £11.50 congestion charge to drive into the central Ultra-Low-Emission-Zone. From 2021, the congestion charge will expand to encompass a vast chunk of the city enclosed by the North Circular and South Circular roads (equivalent to Delhi’s Ring Roads). Only EVs will be exempt.

In Germany, it’s a handful of environmental groups that pushed the country’s mighty automobile industry into reverse gear. Last year, a German court ruled cities can ban diesel vehicles to fight air pollution — a decision with huge significance in the country where automobile-makers were staunch advocates of the technology, insisting it was environmentally safe even while rigging emission tests.

In fact, across Europe a war is being waged against the internal-combustion engine.

On December 1, Madrid imposed stringent new rules banning older petrol and diesel vehicles from a two-sq-mile zone in Central Madrid. The city reports the ban has already cut the number of vehicles plying the roads by 20 per cent and public transport speeds have risen by 14 per cent. Spain’s government now is looking at expanding the scheme to other cities.

The alternatives

How do people get around in cities that make it tough to take cars into town? The answer, of course, is public transport and taxi services like Uber that have made it worthwhile for some to not own a car. Also, there are also extensive bicycle routes. The Netherlands, for example, has more bikes than people with 17 million inhabitants and 23 million bicycles, and even gives cycling commuters tax credits.

But congestion charges, for instance, aren’t a sure-fire recipe for success as London has discovered in the last two years. Taxis were exempt from congestion charges and the number of taxi-rides into London’s restricted zone soared by 29 per cent (especially with the advent of services like Uber) and travel time rose. Under the ambitious new plans of Mayor Khan, who wants walking, cycling and public transit to replace cars, taxi firms will have to pay congestion fees too. Can Delhi learn from cities around the world? Some 70 per cent of the traffic on Delhi roads is two-wheelers and these could conceivably all go electric, though environmentalists like Jha concede there are still problems with electric vehicles. Speeds are slower and in sprawling cities city like Delhi, the distances the e-vehicles can go are often not enough.

On the public transport front, Delhi has a long way to travel to meet public needs. Back in 1998, the Supreme Court ordered the Delhi government to hike the number of buses to 10,000 but currently, the DTC has just 5,500 buses. While it hopes to add 1,000 electric and 3,000 CNG buses, electric buses cost well over a crore, significantly more than CNG buses that start at ₹40 lakh, it’s not yet clear how Delhi will afford them. And even if Delhi gets 9,000 buses, it’ll still be significantly under-strength compared to a city like London with its 11,000 buses serving a far smaller population. Meanwhile, the Delhi metro, built with commendable speed and heavy investment, lacks last-mile connectivity and carries just 5-6 per cent of total commuters.

Also, Jha points out, even measures already in force are not being effectively implemented. For instance, many pollution-checking centres were recently found to be not working. Similarly, though older vehicles have been banned, just 3,000 have been impounded and many are still plying Delhi streets while others are sold and exported to less strict smaller cities.

There’s a lot of hard thinking required on what’s the way forward. We can look to China which is rolling out extensive EV infrastructure and offering automakers numerous incentives to produce clean cars. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in 2016 he wanted all new cars to be electric by 2030 but then slashed that goal to 30 per cent and there’s still no clear-cut policy framework for achieving even that target.

More cycles could help in smaller cities where distances aren’t so great but road safety for cyclists remains a huge issue. And we also need better sidewalks to encourage walkers.

India’s mega-cities throw up mega-transportation dilemmas that aren’t susceptible to easy fixes. And what works abroad isn’t necessarily a pointer to solving transportation problems in Indian cities.

Published on January 08, 2019

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