Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

As a student in Delhi I bicycled to the University in a city of cycles. The air was clean and the roads clear. Almost 40 years later I tried cycling to my office for a while and was pronounced to be suffering from suicidal tendencies.

Urban Immobility Threatens

Innovative reforms are required to cope with crippling urban snarls, fast spreading from metros to medium and even smaller towns.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 5 July, 2010

The last horse-drawn tonga went off Delhi’s streets a few weeks ago. This was followed by the Maruti-800, India’s first indigenous small car, only to be replaced by the Nano, which Ratan Tata determined to develop after seeing a Delhi family of four perilously perched on a two-wheeler. This is progress; but not without forebodings as cities get choked and movement slower. Connectivity and mobility symbolize modernity – but for whom, at what cost and for how long? As a student in Delhi I bicycled to the University in a city of cycles. The air was clean and the roads clear. Almost 40 years later I tried cycling to my office for a while and was pronounced to be suffering from suicidal tendencies. Today, let alone cycle, one can barely walk in Delhi or other metros, though the bulk of their residents, the working poor, walk to work.

Delhi’s plight has been graphically portrayed by the Centre for Science and Environment in “Mobility Crisis: Agenda for Action, 2010” edited by Souparno Banerjee. The situation is worse than one thought. The big battle a decade ago was for buses, taxis and three-wheelers to comvert to CNG as part of the clean air campaign. The pollution graph went down but is rising again. Now the battle is for space and time. Though the road network in the Capital has increased 3.7 times over the past 33 years, with flyovers galore, the number of vehicles (excluding light commercial vehicles and trucks) has increased by 21 times, given a doubling of private vehicles (two and four wheelers) over the past decade with 1021 new vehicles being added every day (2007-08). An increasing number of households own more than one vehicle.

Delhi had over six million registered vehicles on its roads in 2007-08, maybe a tenth of all vehicles in India. Over 20 per cent of its land area is under roads and there is less and less scope for road widening. Yet, whereas the six-carriageway, 48-km Ring Road was designed to relieve traffic congestion and carry 75,000 vehicles a day, it has now become just another arterial road and carries over double that number today and is estimated to carry 400,000 vehicles a day by 2012. The major inter-city highways linking Delhi to the National Capital Region and Gurgaon, Ghaziabad, NOIDA and Faridabad in particular, are overloaded with increasing numbers commuting in both directions.

Streets and sidewalks have been taken over for (unauthorized) parking, forcing pedestrians and peddlers on to the carriageway, narrowing usable roadways, aggravating congestion, reducing speeds and enhancing accident hazards, not to mention road and parking rage that has led to murder and mayhem. Road speeds have declined and journey times lengthened with increasing traffic jams, idling time, enhanced pollution (with more diesel vehicles coming on the road) and fuel wastage. CSE calculates two to 2.5 hours of journey time daily from home to office and back. The loss of productive time is estimated at 420 man-hours per month in the NCR, an enormous economic and social cost.

Walking is unpleasant and hazardous, the cyclist an endangered species and public transport lagging in the race for commuters. Single rider cars dominate the road, using disproportionate road space, parking and fuel per journey-mile. The national bus-car ratio has fallen sharply over the past 60 years, from one in 10 to one in 100. In 2004, out of 73 million vehicles on the road, only 768,000 were buses. In 2007-08, as many as 1.5 million cars were sold against 38,955 buses.

Bus fleets are largely worked by small operators with limited franchises and therefore compelled to cut corners. The country’s 35 million-plus cities are going in for larger, modern buses under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. But bus production capacity is still limited, though expanding. But even if available, buses need road space to move. This is why bus rapid transit (BRT) systems are being introduced, engendering new battles between entrenched and influential car owners and bus commuters, between need and greed.

The one Delhi south-north BRT corridor established so far has encountered huge opposition. Maybe it could have been better planned and executed, with proper pedestrian crossings. But the very idea was attacked. Half the capital’s commuters travel by bus. In 2009, BRT buses carried 200,000 passengers at higher road speeds than before but had to compete with ever more cars on open roads. Ahmedabad is doing better with GPS–fitted buses that reach bus stops at stipulated times. The trick is to open more reserved bus corridors and inventivise commuters to ride buses in preference to cars, autos and two-wheelers.

The agitation over every increase in fuel charges for personal transport is proof enough that price rationing will not be easy. Differential charges for public transport and trucks can lead to blackmarketing but strict enforcement will ensure that racketeering can be controlled. But a whole lot of other fiscal measures are possible. The excise duties on cars can be raised as can the one time road tax levied by municipal bodies on vehicles, while corresponding charges on public transport vehicles are reduced. The CSE report points out that a car costing up to Rs 4 lakh in Delhi pays a life-time road tax of Rs 533 per annum. The corresponding charge for a bus is Rs 1915 for an 18-passenger vehicle and Rs 280 for every additional passenger.

The automobile industry will protest, but would be at least partially compensated were it made to produce more buses.

Singapore, Paris and other international cities have pedestrianised congested areas, even if only during certain hours or on certain days and provided park and ride alternatives. Delhi has been contemplating such a system for Connaught Place. Congestion taxes have also been devised so that vehicles entering given zones pay a variable toll depending on time of day. Such taxes could help reduce emission in toxic areas. Staggered working hours are prevalent and flexi-hours and online office transactions could be encouraged.

Parking remains a prime problem with multiple car owners appropriating more public space than slum or pavement dwellers have for homes. Parking lots, underground or elevated, are few and roadside parking is permitted or charged at nominal rates that offer little incentive to avoid using a car or parking it for long intervals.

A combination of innovative reforms are required to cope with crippling urban snarls, fast spreading from metros to medium and even smaller towns. Metro rail and suburban trains are an answer and this is being replicated beyond Kolkata and Delhi with interlocking feeder bus and even rent-a-bike services. Cities must be restored to being cycle and, above all, pedestrian friendly with emphasis on the poorer quarters rather than on the mindless and extravagantly wasteful “beautification” of Lutyens Delhi where pavements are “repaired” and replaced” twice a year. Something is being planned; but it is the execution that matters.

Fuel-efficiency standards are being raised and older models must be taxed to encourage earlier replacement. Diesel vehicles are polluting and need to be discouraged in the personal transport sector by barring manufacture or heavier taxation. The crisis is here. We must act soon or go under.

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