There has been much rumination over New Delhi’s first road apportionment experiment. Its success, or the lack thereof, has been judged on it being solely an anti-pollution drive. It sure was one of its key goals. But I am going to stay away from the debate on whether the move brought down pollution or not, even though it is hard for me to believe that lesser cars on the roads did not lead to a reduction in vehicular pollution. It defies logic. Instead, I want to focus on few other issues that got somewhat overlooked in all the frenetic PM 2.5 and PM 10 number-crunching.
What can be less questioned though is the success the odd-even scheme has had in getting the city's rich involved in civic activism for greater common good. For too long, the middle class have learnt to pay for short-term solutions, instead of permanent and more sustainable ones. And to be fair, they have been forced to do so by the apathetic state of our public services. Cars in lieu of public transport, private schools instead of government ones, water filters to make up for the lack of potable water in our taps, inverters to back up an erratic power supply, gated colonies in the absence of better policing, RWAs as an ersatz for effective local governance – as long as they have the means to ensure the quality of life desired, they create islands of comfort with little consideration for what the masses live with and endure. This has led to scant engagement between the middle class and the government on public services.
But air pollution has popped this bubble and the ingrained sense of entitlement amongst Delhi’s rich. Pollutants don't discriminate between the rich and poor and air purifiers (another short-term solution!) can limit the incursion of pollutants into our homes and lungs only up to an extent. This has forced car owners to step out for change and be part of a greater good to campaign for better public transport and cleaner air. Never mind discordant noises calling for public transport to be made more amenable to the rich. Some asked for special and higher priced seats on the metro – sort of a “premium economy” class. The Delhi government reportedly plans to introduce special buses for the rich. Hopefully, these will not distract the government from improving standards of public transport for all users. These suggestions will lead to not just iniquitous but also inefficient modes of transport. Do you really think the rich are going to plan their travel to get on a bus that comes every one or two hours?
The other encouraging success the odd-even scheme has had is in giving public bus transport the attention it deserves in Delhi. By getting more people, especially affluent car owners, out of their cubbyholes and on to buses, the scheme has forced a rare high-visibility rethink on how to better our underdeveloped and underutilised public bus transport infrastructure. Buses, unlike the expanding metro network, rarely get the attention they merit in this city. The odd-even was a welcome exception. And before people retreat fully into their air-conditioned cars and the gains achieved in the first half of January forgotten, Delhi government's transport planners must capitalise on the momentum generated from this success.
The daily ridership of buses rose by six lakh during the odd-even phase, going up from the usual load of more than 35 lakh. This is a rebound from the 11% decline recorded in Delhi Transport Corporation's ridership in 2014-15 over the previous year. The latest Delhi Economic Survey also points to another dismal figure - the number of buses has fallen 24% over the past five years, from 6,204 in 2010-11 to 4,712 in 2014-15. How does a city fight pollution with a dwindling bus fleet?
The legacy of the first odd-even scheme (I use 'first' in the hope that more will follow) must be pro-actively leveraged by the Delhi government to improve our public bus transport infrastructure. The metro has been a boon for this city but it is never going to cover Delhi like bus networks can (for instance, a bus stop is less than 300 metres away from my house and a metro station more than three km), which is why more emphasis needs to be given to building an efficient and reliable bus service.
It involves not just putting more buses on the roads but ensuring they run on time and that people have means (display boards on the stops) that tell them how long they have to wait until the next bus they want to get on arrives. If there’s one thing that puts people off Delhi’s buses, it is their unreliability. I would even argue that their lack of comfort is less of a discouraging factor for potential users than their notorious irregularity. Commuters often have to wait half an hour for a bus or more for a commute that takes around the same time.
Not knowing how long one’s daily commute is going to take on a DTC bus is a non-starter for any passenger looking to dump his or her personal vehicle for public transport. Enabling passengers with information (such as route and timings) will help bring more people on to buses. There has been talk of developing apps that do so but what about those who cannot afford smartphones? Any planning move for public transport has to take the lowest common user as the base. Is this too much to ask? Even today Delhi’s bus stops are plastered with advertisements. But have you seen a route map, let alone a user-friendly one, on any of these stops? The absence of one shows how much attention the government has consecrated to Delhi’s bus network.
Hopefully, the successful experiment with the odd-even scheme will change all this. On any regular day, with 35 lakh passengers, DTC buses ferry 10 lakh more people than the metro. And better utilisation of the current fleet, according to Centre for Science and Environment, can help keep up to 16 lakh cars off the road. If the government keeps its part of the bargain by bettering our public transport system, it will make way for more enthusiastic public support for the next phase of the odd-even scheme. Hopefully it will then be a regular and recurring one, with no exemptions.
Delhi needs to look to Bogota and its mayor Enrique Peñalosa for inspiration. He is credited with the oft-cited quote,"An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it's where even the rich use public transportation". It is a vision Delhi's planners need pinned on their desks.
(The writer is a reluctant car-owner who would much rather hop on to his cycle or a public bus)