First step in urban mobility

First step in urban mobility

Odd-even formula : The experiment in Delhi seems to have been a great success measured from the point of view of public discourse on pollution.

First step in urban mobility
The fortnight-long experiment of rationing road space for private cars in the national capital, New Delhi, has ended on a positive note. This was the first such attempt of its kind in urban mobility anywhere in the country. It was unique in the sense that it covered the whole city and targeted personal transport vehicles.

Road space rationing in Indian cities has so far mostly involved buses, pedal rickshaws and cyclists, and was restricted to a few stretches in a city or town. The Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) corridors that allocate road space to public transport buses cover only a few routes in cities where they are operational.

Car-free days being observed in some cities are day-long exercises and again restricted to a strata of car users. The odd-even number plate formula was city-wide and was attempted in a metro which is India’s largest car market and has more motorised vehicles than three other metro cities put together.

Even before the experiment ended, debate began if the formula has had any impact on air pollution and congestion on city roads. Conflicting datasets are being touted to claim success or failure of the scheme on air quality of the city.

The presence and level of pollutants in air is the function of several contributory factors, including exhausts from cars, two wheelers and trucks. Weather factors, like wind speeds and temperature, determine the flow of air pollutants and the duration for which they keep hanging in the air.

The very fact that the odd-even formula was in force only within Delhi and not in geographically contiguous National Capital Region would have meant that air quality in the city would not show any discernible improvement. After all, pollutants from regions surrounding the national capital could not be stopped at the borders or in the atmosphere.

In addition, several other factors such as burning of agricultural stubs in fields in neighbouring states, dust pollution due to construction site in and around Delhi and emissions from industrial activity all contribute to bad air. Comparison with air pollution data from previous months and weeks or last year is also fallacious because quality baseline data is lacking.

In fact, this is the first takeaway from the experiment: It has exposed gaps in our understanding of pollution in mega cities, pointing to lack of robust monito-ring mechanism for air quality, baseline data and methodologies to assess quantum of pollution from different sources.

The System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), a legacy project of 2010 Commonwealth Games, is just a beginning. Hopefully, all Central, state and research agencies will come together and evolve air quality monitoring system not just for Delhi and NCR but for all major cities in the country. So, let’s improve science of air quality monitoring and develop an air pollutant inventory which can clearly tell which sector is contributing how much.

While scientific and government agencies analyse the data of two weeks and come up with their findings, the exp-eriment seems to have been a great success measured from the point of view of public discourse on pollution and parti-cipation of people in making it a success.

The overwhelming response of people has silenced critics and skeptics in media and political opponents of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as well as powerful automobile lobbies. Never before has Delhi or any other city responded to a public policy this way.

There were fewer than expected violations, no street brawls or cases of fake number plates were reported and no tiffs seen between traffic police and civil defence volunteers. The scheme worked amazingly well. Kejriwal and his collea-gues led by example – pooling cars, riding bikes and traveling by Metro – going beyond tokenism and so-called optics.
The experiment brought pollution and transport related issues to public discourse. Issues like the state of public transport – Metro and DTC buses – car pooling, last mile connectivity, need for dedicated infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists were all discussed in media, social media and public places. It was not just talk; people also experimented with different modes of transport and shared their experiences.

Decongestion at zero cost

People could see what difference it could make to city roads if just a little over one million cars stayed away from roads – commuting time by cars came down, waiting time at key traffic signals and congestion points reduced dramatically, enough parking space was available in city centre – Connaught Place – and traffic was rather lean even on so-called ‘maniac Mondays’. Successive governments in Delhi and elsewhere have spent billions of rupees constructing underpasses and flyovers just to ease congestion, but with little success. The odd-even formula could demonstrate how to reduce congestion within days at zero-cost.

For years, experts and environment groups have been arguing that we need to exercise tough options to fight air pollution, congestion and other urban ills. The 15-day road rationing was the first such hard option to be actually tried.

As we know, any measure that will discomfort people needs strong political will to implement. When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg enforced emergency measure of rationing petrol and diesel based on odd-even number plates in 2012, he faced a lot of flak. Beijing authorities order closure of industrial units and enforce road rationing during emergency situations.

Hopefully, city administrations elsewhere in India have keenly followed the Delhi experiment, and would be willing to show necessary political will to act tough. Kejriwal made it a people’s movement and struck a chord with them.

However, Delhi can’t rest with the laurels. Road rationing is just one of the options. It needs to do much more – improve public transport and motivate more people to use it, further expand the Metro network, improve last mile connectivity, ensure safe movement of pedestrians and cyclists and disincentivise use of personal transport.

Simultaneously, the Central government will have to ensure availability of high-quality fuel, roll out world class emission standards and bring neighbouring states on board. Only then can the national capital breath fresh air. Odd-even is just the first step.

(The writer is Fellow, Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi)