Delhi’s odd/even number car days; a bad idea & non-implementable

December 7, 2015

The latest decision Arvind Kejriwal government to introduce ‘odd-even formula’ has left me and any other thinkers completely flummoxed. As per the new rule framed by Delhi government, residents of the capital city will be forced to use only odd numbered cars on three days of the week while even numbered vehicles will be allowed to ply on remaining alternate days. The logic is that this would cut Delhi’s vehicular congestion, and hence vehicular emission – arguably one of the biggest reasons for the city’s dangerously high air pollution – by half.

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Now, I am as concerned as the next person about Delhi’s toxic air quality, and I welcome every well thought out move to reduce pollution. But Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s this decision sounds more like a sensational and knee jerk – commandment than like a viable measure to curb pollution.

Beijing has, of course, implemented the odd/even number system on its streets — though some reports suggest that it kicks in only during periods when pollution levels soar to murderous proportions. The system works there because the Chinese capital has a sophisticated, widespread and efficient public transport network. So people who are forced to leave their cars behind on certain days are not overly inconvenienced.

In contrast Delhi’s public transport infrastructure is a sad apathy.  There are not enough buses and those that are there are packed to the rafters and they do not come on time. Not exactly the kind of transport a person used to driving himself to work would want to opt for.

Yes, the Metro is a triumph of efficiency and comfort, but it is yet to connect many parts of the widely spread city. There are large swathes that are still far away from a Metro station. The last mile connect between the nearest metro station and one’s house is often served by bumpy auto rides rather than comfortable buses or shuttles. There are certainly many who do not want to walk that distance twice a day on their way to work and back and wish not to submit their bones to a rattletrap auto.

Given the huge lacunae in Delhi’s public transport system, the odd/even number cars on alternate days is an exercise in futility. Non-compliance is a foregone conclusion. In any case, families who own two or more cars are unlikely to be affected. They will simply switch cars to suit the odd/even number day. The rich may even want to buy an extra car or two to get around the problem. In other words, this so-called pollution-friendly move might actually result in more cars in a city that has some 25 lakh cars already which, by the way, is supposed to be more than the total number of cars in all the other metros put together.

Besides, the odd/even number system is pretty much non-implementable. Say a whole lot of people decide to flout this splendid rule and take their cars out on a day they are not supposed to. How are the police expected to nab them during rush hour traffic? How many will they stop and fine? It’s a recipe for more corruption and the giving and taking of bribes!

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal should drop this Quixotic scheme and concentrate on implementable measures which have surfaced from a citizen driven campaign #ITforParivahan to reduce congestion on Delhi’s roads and thereby its air pollution. Fixing the city’s public transport system should be his top priority. After all, most people would be quite happy to leave their cars at home and avoid the trauma of inching through traffic snarls if they could get a fast, smooth and comfortable ride on some public transport.

The government should also incentivise car pooling. In the US, for example, many cities have fast-track car pool lanes for vehicles with multiple occupants. It’s not just an energy efficient way to travel, it reduces air pollution significantly.

What’s surprising is that while the Delhi government thought it fit to ape Beijing’s odd/even number system, it has announced no attendant measure to discourage the buying of cars. In cities like Beijing and Singapore, registration of new cars is frightfully expensive, which automatically makes people buy fewer cars, thus reducing the quantum of vehicular emission.

Many developed countries also make it much more expensive for people to drive into cities. For example, Singapore has a system of electronic road pricing (ERP) where motorists are charged if they use priced roads during peak hours. Congestion charges for driving into business districts exist in cities like London, Stockholm, Milan, San Diego and many others. But obviously, city administrations have managed to makes these schemes work because their public transport systems are excellent.

Basically, by introducing the odd/even combo, Delhi government is really putting the cart before the horse. None of these measures will work unless the city gets a first rate public transport network, one that’s a viable and efficient alternative for motorists. As things stand, the only beneficiary of this system (if it’s implemented) will be Delhi’s auto drivers who will be called upon to ferry people to the nearest metro.

Delhi government’s pollution control measure will be hotly debated in the coming days. But any which way you look, it’s wrongheaded and certain to give rise to more problems than solutions.

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