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   Friday, October 19, 2018
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Nightmare on the road
By Sudhirendar Sharma

With increased influence of auto-industry over policy making, massive expenditures have been made to expand space for private cars. However, the near monopoly of car owners over road has not improved the transport either.

Widening roads and building new flyovers result in more cars on the roads

Festive season of Delhi makes car travel in the city dreadful. The new elevated highways and widened roads have seemingly made matters worse. The consequent traffic snarl has led to the widening of the next choked inter-section. The road widening work invariably excludes the pedestrians, the cycle and the rickshaws from the traffic plans but the intriguing puzzle remains - new roads contribute to increase in traffic.

If Delhi is a case in point, most roads have either been elevated or widened. The city, nicknamed as the city of flyovers, has invested over Rs 2,300 crore on road improvements in the current year, with provision for 30 per cent hike in the next year. However, nowhere does it assure that traffic movement would be smooth thereafter. The elevated roads built to ease traffic have often been found clogged, mocking at transport planners who made us think otherwise.

Like other cities, Delhi is witness to the enigma of the modern age. There is hardly a city in the world where traffic has not choked people's road space and lungs. The amazing consistency in the trend implies that, despite all that spending, some other factor must be at work. If there are better roads do people buy more cars? Economists have found it to be true, new roads release what they called 'suppressed demand' for people to buy more cars.

There is hardly a city in the world where traffic has not choked people's road space and lungs.

Delhiites are indeed expressing their suppressed demand - by adding over 1,000 new personal vehicles on city's overstretched roads each day; by switching from small to medium and from medium to big car in a reasonably short time; and by increasing the per capita number of cars. No one seems to care that the idling time due to traffic congestion costs Rs 11.5 crore every day and the air pollution is its undesired gain.

Instead of bolstering public transport, private car owners are pampered

It is Catch-22. Neither can people stop buying cars nor can manufacturers stop producing them. Yet, the traffic ought to run smoothly. As improvement in road infrastructure is proving ineffective, the task is to invent disincentives for people to keep their cars away. Could selective restriction on vehicle numbers reduce the number of cars on the road? Alternately, could reduction in parking spaces alongside introduction of congestion charges do the trick?

London, where billions have been spent on traffic management and urban motorways, hasn't found a solution. In just over a century since motorized transport was introduced in the city, then centre of empire, the door-to-door average speed hasn't shown any improvement. It was 19 km/hr during the horse drawn era whereas with cars it has slipped down to 18 km/hr. The congestion charge introduced by Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2003 hasn't been found effective either.

In just over a century since motorized transport was introduced in London, then centre of empire, the door-to-door average speed hasn't shown any improvement.

Where does this lead us to? It is clear that classical economics, which believes that people make their decisions entirely in terms of money, has got it wrong because it fails to understand why people behave the way they do. Traffic planners, on the other hand, seek more resources to improve existing infrastructure, knowing well that it may not work. Livingstone's unsuccessful idea was based on the assumption that people preferences are a factor of the price they pay.

The kind of economics that reduces everything to money may find it hard to understand what is going on. It is now an accepted fact that more the roads more the number of cars, at the cost of other forms of transport that are essentially environment-friendly - be it a pedestrian, a cycle or a rickshaw. The question worth considering is whether city roads are meant for cars only. Should 'rights' of other users not be protected on city roads?

Well-known transport theorist Martin Mogridge, author of Jam Yesterday, Jam Today and Jam Tomorrow, reckoned that traffic speed could be doubled just by reducing space for cars. It may seem a tough call, given that car manufacturers and owners have monopolized city roads, but is nevertheless a call worth taking. Else, in the absence of legal provision on 'right over road' attempts like the one to rid the historic Chandni Chowk of rickshaws will continue to be made.

Cars ought to compete for space with other forms of transport. The city administrators and traffic planners must consider creating 'disincentives' for cars from clogging the roads. By the end of his life, Mogridge had suggested that taxing the inefficient road user (the motorist) and subsidizing the efficient public transport could be an effective disincentive. However, not without first abandoning the expensive urban road building programs, and not before establishing the 'right over road' for other forms of non-commercial transport.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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