Belatedly, the Urban Development Ministry is waking up to the need to introduce traffic restraint schemes in all metropolitan cities. The Mission on Sustainable Habitat under the ministry has noted that traffic is in dire need of 'contraception' - it is growing four times faster than the population in six cities: Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. Indeed, Delhi is now said to have as many cars as Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai combined.
The National Action Plan on Climate Change is going to act on this information, which may partly be explained by India needing to be seen as acting to curb its greenhouses gas emissions, given the pressure by industrialized countries on major developing nations to get their act together on tackling global warming. As was evident from the flak that China received during the recent Olympics, mega cities (with over 10 million inhabitants) will come under increasing scrutiny for their congestion and automobile pollution.
In Mumbai, a committee headed by the former Director General of Police, Dr P S Pasricha, who has a PhD in traffic management, ruled out traffic restraint schemes as not being practical. His views have been echoed by the most powerful car owners' lobby. Nitin Dossa, the executive chairman of the Western India Automobile Association (WIAA), adds: "The length of the roads and highways have remained the same in the last decade or so, but there has been an increase in the growth of the vehicular population."
Transport experts at the second Urban Age conference (December 3-5; the first was in Mumbai last November) on mega cities in Sao Paulo, Brazil - a city with 18 million people and 9 million cars - were unanimous in pointing out that throughout the world, whether in industrial or developing countries, public transport had to be promoted at the expense of private, motorized transport which, in effect, implies traffic restraint, among a slew of other measures.
Jose Luis Portella, Secretary of Transport for the State of Sao Paulo, observed that 30 per cent of the trips in the city were by pedestrians. For motorized transport, even in a city with half as many cars as people, buses accounted for 55 per cent of the trips and private cars for only 45 per cent, despite the congestion on the city roads throughout the day. He criticised the demand so often raised by car owners for more roadways, by way of highways, fly overs and the like. "It is like saying that the solution to obesity is larger pants," he said.
Dossa of the WIAA has also reiterated the demand for more parking for cars, ignoring the fact that in Mumbai, pavements are being done away with or shrunk in order to make room for parking. And this in a city where some 60 per cent of the people walk or cycle to work. He has called for more underground and multi-storeyed car parks. Mumbai's first high-rise facility was promoted by the WIAA at Nariman Point, at the southernmost tip of the island city. It was vigorously condemned by environmentalists who pointed out first, that it was being built on some of the world's most expensive real estate and second, that it was sending the wrong signal so far as traffic restraint was concerned. Instead of dissuading motorists from bringing their cars into the central business district, the WIAA was encouraging them to do so.
The Urban Development Ministry Mission has suggested making ownership of parking space compulsory for all new private vehicles.
The Urban Development Ministry Mission has suggested making ownership of parking space compulsory for all new private vehicles. It could well adopt the Thai formula of requiring developers of high-rise apartment complexes to provide 30 per cent of the built-up space for parking. In Mumbai's suburbs, affluent cooperative housing societies have resorted to the device of gating the entire frontage of their complexes, thereby facilitating motorists to move out directly from their buildings, but preventing others from parking on the road.
The Mission has also suggested that parking fees should reflect the cost of land. In Nariman Point - where one residential apartment recently exchanged hands for some Rs 80,000 a sq foot! - this would be much higher than the standard Rs 5 per hour that the municipal corporation allows its private parking contractors to collect uniformly across the city. The charges should also be telescopic - in other words, the longer someone parks, the higher the rate at which he pays. This will certainly deter office-goers from parking throughout the day.
Mumbai's Regional Transport Authority has also recommended car pooling. MESN has promoted what a web- and sms-based pooling system (www.mykoolpool.com; Bangalore's BTIS system has a group-SMS version: www.btis.in/carpool). Because regulations prevent a private motorist from charging for lifts, Koolpool has ingeniously circumvented the problem by enlisting the help of Hindustan Petroleum which permits pick-ups at its petrol pumps. In return, each driver receives a petrol voucher worth Rs.25 for giving a lift, irrespective of the distance. Even if the commuters get to pool their cars, the broader environmental objective is met, even if commercial considerations suffer.
Although there was considerable interest initially in Mumbai - particularly from women, who would obviously prefer to travel in air-conditioned comfort and safety - the scheme has not taken off in a big way, with only 764 registered members. This is a pity, because Mumbai is eminently suited to it, considering that the traffic arteries run on a north-south axis. Another initiative, according to the traffic police, is carpoolmumbai.com, which has some 7000 registered members (as opposed to users). One reason for the laggardness is the harsh fact that no one, whether in a Koolpool , car pool or driving to work, can be assured of reaching on time and employees are penalized for late-coming.
Debi Goenka, formerly with the Bombay Environmental Action Group, believes that the "only way to restrict people from bringing cars into the city is by increasing user-charges, be it tolls or parking fees". He also adds that the traffic department should enforce Euro norms for vehicles and a ban on cars over ten years old, which may be somewhat steep. As it is, the bulk of Mumbai's 50,000 odd owners are resisting the move to ban taxis which are over 25 years old, which should have come into force on 1 December.
Traffic restraint schemes envisage eliminating at least a fifth of the cars on the road on any given day. Athens and Mexico City have implemented such schemes successfully. One way to do this is to permit cars with number plates ending with an odd number on alternate days into the city centre. The fear, however, is that rich residents may only buy a second car - or, as has been feared, may actually fraudulently change their number plates every day!
A congestion tax will be far easier to implement. Singapore showed the way several years ago by introducing a tax, in addition to auctioning a permit to drive a car. Using good market principles, these permits are subject to demand and supply: there is a certain number at any given time, and if no one is selling a car, there will be no permit to drive. The cost of the permit varies according to the engine capacity and brand of car. In the case of a Mercedes or BMW, the permit can actually cost more than the car itself. London has followed suit with a 5-pound tax, later raised to eight pounds. The software for charging the tax was developed by a Mumbai firm, Mastek. In both these cities, buses move freely as a result and the quality of life has improved visibly.
In the absence of traffic restraint schemes in India, including the controversial Bus Rapid Transit which has run the gauntlet of motorists' ire in Delhi but is adopted in 83 of the world's cities, public transport is suffering. From 1994, the share of public transport has declined from 69 per cent to just 38 per cent in cities with more than 4 million people. The answers are staring us the face, but we have the car lobby to contend with, and its powerful backers among politicians and the bureaucracy.