Recent reports say that policy makers in Delhi are considering the introduction of congestion charges for motor vehicles on specific sections of Delhi roads and making some of them one-way streets to reduce congestion. Just because congestion charging has been successfully implemented in London and Stockholm does not mean that it is easy to implement and will work everywhere.
Singapore has made it very expensive to own cars, limits their number, but still car ownership per capita in Singapore and proportion of car trips remain higher than that in Delhi. In any case, policies that can be implemented in Singapore cannot be replicated in most cities of the world because Singapore is an island that can deny entry to outsiders and manage tight management of its citizens.
It is surprising that we are still contemplating one-way traffic on our major arteries. Peter Murray, who used to be the Head of the New London Architecture Centre, believed that “One-way streets reflect the dominance of the car and the failed go-faster policies of the traffic engineers. As we begin to realise that walking and cycling should be the dominant forms of transport, the one-way street should be consigned to the dustbin of history.”
There are two principle reasons why one-way streets are not favoured by many town planners. When you introduce one-way streets in a city, a significant number of vehicles have to go around the block to reach their destinations and hence the total distance travelled can increase by more than a third. This wastes time and increases fuel consumption and pollution by more than a third also. The second reason is that vehicle speeds increase on those stretches making it difficult for pedestrians and cyclists in the city resulting in higher death rates due to accidents. It is because of these reasons that New York City had to decrease its speed limit to 40 km/h a couple of years ago.
The concept of congestion charging is bandied about as if it is the simplest policy to execute and is always effective. More than fifteen years ago Professor Peter R. Stopher of the University of Sydney cautioned us that “that charging motorists a politically acceptable amount will probably still not make significant impact on overall congestion, while the potential for serious impacts on the economy become large if the charges are made sufficiently high or the area covered is made sufficiently large.”
At about the same time Professor Brian Taylor from the University of California, Los Angeles, asked “Is traffic congestion a sign of failure? Long queues at restaurants or theater box offices are seen as signs of success. I think we should recognize that traffic congestion is an inevitable by-product of vibrant, successful cities, and view the ‘congestion problem’ in a different light.” Quite clearly, there has been little consensus among thinking traffic experts on how to think about urban traffic congestion and how to deal with it. This is why there are very few cities the world that had the courage to experiment with the concept of congestion charging.
Singapore was the first country to implement congestion charge in 1975, followed by Bergen in 1986, Oslo in 1990 and Trondheim in 1991, London in 2003, and Stockholm in 2007. The majority of existing congestion pricing systems are based on cordon charging, where drivers have to pay for entering or leaving the charging zone (usually the central business district) during the designated time period. Compared to Delhi, all the cities are small (except London), all have very high incomes per capita and all have very well established, dense, attractive and very rich central business districts that businesses are reluctant to leave. All studies show that it takes two or three years to get the technologies ready to establish the charging systems and it is very expensive to do so. The results vary and the London experiment indicates that initially average speeds increased from 14 km/h to 18 km/h in the cordon area. When London introduced congestion charges the average speeds in the central business district were lower than those in Delhi and remain lower after he charges.
It is interesting that out of hundreds of cities in the world that suffer from traffic congestion only a handful have been able to introduce it. Quite obviously the system is not easy to implement for political, technical, economic and practical reasons. Oblivious of these truths we keep floating the idea to solve our problems in Delhi. This also ensures that more workable ideas are not thought about and we delay the emergence of possible solutions. Arteries in Delhi are used for local travel as well as travelling from one end of the city to another. In addition, there are dozens of entry and exit possibilities along the way. It is not clear how any form of congestion charges can be implemented on a section of the road, who will be exempted and how will we make sure that motorists do not use inventive routes to circumvent the charge. Since no part of Delhi is particularly attractive for business, it is possible that making a place more expensive to access may cause capital flight from that area.
Proportion of area devoted to roads in Delhi is higher and motor vehicle use lower than most of the cities implementing the congestion charge. Most of the locations where we experience congestion is because of faulty road design, lack of traffic control and illegal parking. At all red-light junctions vehicles turning right form two or three lanes only leaving one for those going straight reducing traffic flow. It is a well-known design principle that roads must have the same width all through except where you have merging traffic. But in Delhi the road width keeps changing all the time ensuring bottlenecks during peak traffic flow. At the bottom of all flyovers and where different arteries meet six lanes have to merge into three lanes. At many places vehicles merging left are forced to weave across those merging right over short distances. All these design features ensure that congestion takes place even when traffic is not very heavy.
It is time that we start thinking of doable solutions rather than discussing technology options not possible in the next few years.
Dinesh Mohan is Honorary Professor at IIT Delhi