Studying in the United Kingdom in the late 90s, I remember how difficult it was to commute in Central London. One would often get off the bus and walk to the destination because it was faster.
This was the time Londoners had voted in favour of electing a mayor to run the capital and candidate Ken Livingstone was talking about a tough road-pricing regime to reduce traffic congestion in the central business district.
When elected, Livingstone kept his promise. In 2003, the congestion tax was introduced, covering eight square miles in central London. Motorists were charged five pounds a day for driving through the area.
Three years ago, when I visited London after over a decade, I found the city had more breathing space. There were fewer cars and more buses. The tube, buses, London Overground, Dockland Light Railway, trams, a range of cabs, and hired bicycles provided a well-integrated web of public transport. Transport for London, responsible for running all these services, claims some of this investment has come from congestion tax. The charge, now 11.50 pounds a drive, raised more than two billion pounds since it was introduced, which by law has been reinvested in public transport after covering the cost of enforcement.
While London has decongested, my hometown, Delhi, is asphyxiating. Every week, the waiting time at every signal on my way to office and back gets longer, sometimes even stretching to two or three signal cycles. The problem is the sheer number of cars that fill up our roads.
The foul air from the seven million vehicles on Delhi's roads is leading to overcrowding in the intensive care units of city hospitals, HT reported last week. Studies collated by the Centre for Science and Environment from various sources show that more than 3,000 premature deaths occurred every year in Delhi due to air pollution-related diseases. At least half of Delhi's population lived within 500 metres from arterial roads and was directly affected by vehicular pollution.
Last week, the National Green Tribunal announced a host of measures, including banning vehicles older than 15 years. Two days later, the Environment Pollution (prevention and control) Authority, in a report to Supreme Court, suggested raising pollution alerts on the lines of Beijing and Paris, restrictions on vehicle ownership, limiting the use of diesel vehicles and promotion of public transport.
These suggestions are not new. For years, almost all studies commissioned by the government, Parliament and the courts recommended congestion pricing and road space rationing. But experts say they can't be enforced till we fix the basic connectivity problems.
We can't beat the London Underground's 151 years of history, but Delhi's Metro in its 12th year is already ferrying 2.5 million passengers daily. Yet, at least 700 new cars hit Delhi's roads every day.
While a 2010 study by the School of Planning and Architecture showed that 58% of those who commuted by private cars were willing to use the Metro if provided with better feeder service, experts say the bulk of the public transport services in any city has to be bus-based.
In London, 3.7 million people use the Underground daily while 6.4 million take a bus. Singapore registers a daily subway ridership of 2.65 million trips and 3.48 million trips by buses. In Delhi, bus ridership is 60% higher than Metro's.
But to run to its full potential, the Delhi Transport Corporation needs to double its fleet and reach to ensure last-mile connectivity, improve frequency, install display boards showing routes and timetables and bring the buses under GPS surveillance. Instead, Delhi is busy building more flyovers and widening roads.
Summing up the government's short-sighted approach, A K Jain, an expert on HT's panel for the 'Unclog Delhi' campaign, quoted American traffic engineer Walter Kulash: "Fighting congestion by widening a road is like loosening your belt to fight obesity".
Restraining the movement of the city's seven million private vehicles requires political courage. But Delhi's crawling road traffic demands unpopular interventions. It is time we upgrade our public transport network. After all, there is only so much road space - or so many flyovers - Delhi can have.