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