Has the sea of idling vehicles on Delhi’s roads started to look like an ocean lately? Has the waiting time at every intersection stretched to two or more signal cycles? As we spent more and more time trapped behind the wheel last year, statisticians have revealed some scary facts about Delhi’s traffic.
The government data released last week showed that the number of vehicles registered in Delhi increased from 8.8 million in 2014-15 to 9.7 million in 2015-16 — a spike of 9.93% and the highest in eight years.
On December 15, HT wrote about a study by six road design experts stating that the time spent by Delhi commuters on city roads has doubled in the last six years and the speed of traffic during peak hours has been cut by half. Today, a person travelling 40 km by a private vehicle during peak hours spends an average of 3.43 hours on the road, up from 1.36 hours in 2011, the researchers found.
This ocean of vehicles hasn’t just choked the roads. It is asphyxiating the national capital. In 2015, as many as 6,502 persons died of respiratory diseases, the second biggest cause of death after the unspecified “others” category in government records.
Didn’t we see it coming? Yes, we did. And we looked away.
Fighting congestion is not about convenience. “It is a fight to ensure the city can fulfil its most basic function of bringing people together,” wrote Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in his book “Triumph of the City”. But for Delhi, getting an efficient public transport has always been low on priority.
Mumbai’s suburban rail that dates to 1853 is as old as the Railways in India. Kolkata got the metro in 1984. Delhi had to wait till 2002. The autos were never reliable and the city never had a system of flagging down taxis. Understandably, people found alternatives in private vehicles. And once they acquired them, not many were willing to switch back to public transport.
The result is that even with the country’s most extensive road network, Delhi has run out of space for its ever-growing fleet. It points to the disaster that is transport planning.
It is not that the authorities don’t know what is to do be done. The ideas are there. Some have even been implemented in fits and starts, but only to be given up just too soon.
The odd-even car restrictions were enforced to fight pollution for two weeks last January. But now, even as the Supreme Court has approved the graded response system to city’s air pollution problem, asking for road rationing to be enforced every time it hits the “severe” level, the government is dragging its feet.
The government also introduced its car-free-day programme in October 2015. Promised to be a regular feature, the move fizzled out too soon. As in the case of odd-even road rationing, the authorities couldn’t sustain the drive for the want of effective public transport.
With just 4,121 buses, the bus fleet size today is at a six-year low. The Delhi government says it tried thrice to buy buses in the past two years but could not find suppliers. The June 2016 audit by the CAG blamed it on “frequent changes in the proposals, cancellation of tenders and retendering”.
To popularise bus travel, the government is planning to slash fares by 75% in the coming months. But discounts cannot get enough private vehicle owners to switch to DTC buses if the service does not ensure better coverage, frequency and punctuality. The DTC also needs to install display boards showing routes and timetables, something promised when the city hosted Commonwealth Games in 2010.
Similarly, the Metro needs to fix last-mile connectivity to ensure optimal utilisation of its network that will expand considerably by end of 2017. Besides, road pricing and congestion taxes have been on the agenda for a long time now. But before enforcing punitive measures, authorities must provide practical options.
Bolstering public transport as a realistic alternative demands substantial investment. Restraining movement of Delhi’s nearly ten million private vehicles requires political courage. With both its air and arteries almost at choking points, Delhi and its leadership can’t afford to dither.