Road­run­ner, Road­run­ner

The odd-even ‘so­lu­tion’ needs to be em­pir­i­cally an­a­lysed, not blindly hur­ra­hed or booed

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Amitabh Kundu

Be­fore the traf­fic ‘so­lu­tion’ in terms of ban­ning odd­and even-num­ber cars on the roads of Delhi on al­ter­nate days for a fort­night ev­ery month is tried out, ques­tions need to be an­swered em­pir­i­cally. One, does the last ex­per­i­ment con­ducted in Jan­uary pro­vide ad­e­quate ev­i­dence that tak­ing cer­tain num­ber of cars off the roads bring down the level of con­ges­tion and pol­lu­tion?

Two, is the so­lu­tion be­ing re­peated be­cause the peo­ple of Delhi have de­manded it? And if so, how was that man­date ob­tained and ac­cepted? Three, how does such in­ter­mit­tent with­drawal of a cer­tain num­ber of cars by their own­ers and mak­ing al­ter­nate ar­range­ments af­fect their well-be­ing and work ef­fi­ciency? And fi­nally, how does Delhi look for­ward to a long-term so­lu­tion to traf­fic prob­lems through this win­dow?

Who Let the Cars Out?

On the first is­sue, the ev­i­dence seems to be, at best, marginally pos­i­tive. At worst, it is equiv­o­cal. The in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ing is that even if the re­duc­tion in the num­ber of cars ac­counts for 7-8% of the to­tal ve­hi­cles (which in­clude mo­tor­cy­cles, pub­lic trans­port, etc), it would have an im­pact on the level of both pol­lu­tion and con­ges­tion. This is based on the same logic that if there are power cuts, the elec­tric­ity bill will come down.

The level of par­tic­u­late mat­ter 2.5 (PM2.5) not show­ing a clear de­cline can pos­si­bly be ex­plained by the fact that the ex­act pol­lu­tion level in the city dur­ing the day is af­fected by a host of fac­tors. They in­clude cli­matic con­di­tions and other even­tu­al­i­ties af­fect­ing the city.

On the propo­si­tion that the Jan­uary 2016 ex­per­i­ment is be­ing re­peated on mas­sive pub­lic de­mand, there are sharp re­ac­tions. No se­ri­ous opin­ion poll sur­vey has been con­ducted so far with any ro­bust method­ol­ogy and ad­e­quate sam­ple size. The re­sults in an on­line sur­vey of 15,000 re­spon­dents, con­ducted by a news­pa­per, can’t be the ba­sis of such a de­ci­sion, given the po­lit­i­cal stakes in­volved. The web­site that dis­plays the statis­tics it­self doubts the va­lid­ity of the re­sults.

One, none­the­less, would not be sur­prised if the re­sponse from the gen­eral cit­i­zenry is in favour of the so­lu­tion since scooter­ists and mo­tor­cy­clists, along with users of pub­lic trans­port, con­sti­tute over 70% of Delhi’s traf­fic, not Delhi’s car users. The an­swer would have been nu­mer­i­cally pos­i­tive even if the ref­er­en­dum was for a com­plete ban on pri­vate cars al­to­gether.

This is not to sug­gest that only the views of car users are rel­e­vant for de­ci­sions to re­strict their mo­bil­ity. They must be held re­spon­si­ble for their con­tri­bu­tion to pol­lu­tion and con­ges­tion and must pay for the costs in­flicted on other road users, in­clud­ing pedes­tri­ans.

Im­por­tantly, though, had there been an over­whelm­ing sup­port in favour of the odd-even plan, the mas­sive pub­lic­ity cam­paign backed up by heavy de­ploy­ment of traf­fic po­lice chal­lan books in hand would have been un­nec­es­sary. Be­sides, the ad­ver­tise­ments are meant more for con­vey­ing ‘how strongly the peo­ple are with the govern­ment, which is sim­ply com­mit­ted to im­ple­ment their man­date’. It would have been eas­ier to ac­cept this had there been no co­er­cion in the mis­sion.

Left to the wishes of car users, this odd-even ar­range­ment would not have taken off, and it would have suf­fered the same fate as Car Free Day that falls on the 22nd of ev­ery month.

Dear Car, Rust in Peace

It is easy to con­vince peo­ple that the govern­ment is work­ing with the al­tru­is­tic goal of pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and pub­lic health and cre­at­ing a model for other cities, since it has not sought to in­crease fuel price or charge ex­tra for us­ing roads on all days. The govern­ment can­not be cen­sured for be­ing mer­ce­nary or cor­rupt. How­ever, peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly the el­derly em­ploy­ing a driver, re­alise that keep­ing their cap­i­tal as­set, the car, un­der­used by 30-40% im­poses se­ri­ous costs, be­sides that of us­ing al­ter­nate modes of travel.

In­ter­est­ingly, there has been no dis­cus­sion on the ad­verse im­pact of the odd-even plan on the well-be­ing of car users and pro­duc­tiv­ity at their work­places: those who ab­sent them­selves, ar­rive late or not be­ing able to work op­ti­mally. If the as­sump­tion is that the ef­fi­ciency of th­ese folks is too low to mat­ter to the country, it would be rea­son­able to close down th­ese of­fices for three days a week or more.

The logic will pos­si­bly be valid also for re­duc­ing the num­ber of work­ing days in re­search in­sti­tu­tions, schools, col­leges and civil so­ci­ety of­fices, given the right­eous goal of sav­ing the Earth. Per­mit­ting shop­ping malls to stay open for fewer days a week may be a dif­fi­cult propo­si­tion.

The long-term so­lu­tion lies in im­prov­ing the pub­lic trans­port and road sys­tem. For that, mas­sive funds are re­quired. Gov­er­nance needs cred­i­bil­ity and le­git­i­macy to en­hance user charges for the road and to con­vince tax­pay­ers that none of th­ese will go for per­sonal ag­gran­dis­e­ment or to the cor­po­rate sec­tor.

Plan­ning through ex­hor­ta­tion and re­spond­ing to ap­peals to give up sub­si­dies on essen­tials and not us­ing pri­vate cars to ex­hibit one’s ‘so­cial con­cern’ in­volves a big in­di­vid­ual cost. Even if the huge cost of con­vey­ing the mes­sage through the me­dia is con­doned and even if it does not ad­dress the is­sue of bring­ing pol­lu­tion down in the long term.

The writer is pro­fes­sor, In­sti­tute for Hu­man De­vel­op­ment, New Delhi

An­other wily plan, even against the odds?

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