Two days into the road rationing experiment, Delhi has thrown up mixed results. On January 1, residents surprised the cynics by bringing out only odd-numbered cars. Overwhelmed by the response, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal borrowed John Lennon’s words: “You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only 1. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will be as one (sic),” he tweeted.
But on day two, violations and traffic jams made a comeback. The real test of this radical experiment is today, the first full working day after an extended weekend. Enforcement teams will be out in bigger numbers and the chance of getting the Rs 2,000 ticket for breaking the rule is higher. But transport minister Gopal Rai is counting on “a new, collective consciousness” to clean up Delhi’s foul air.
We hope so. Because it is not the threat of harsh fines but only shared beliefs and ideas that have brought about great civic changes in cities across the world. For a better quality of life, many cities have taken the referendum route to reduce the number of cars.
Back in 1992, Amsterdam tried it to get people’s approval to halve vehicular traffic and parking spaces in the city centre by 2002. A low turnout of 27% didn’t derail the government plan. Today, there are an estimated 800,000 bicycles in Amsterdam and almost two-thirds of its population of around 811,000 uses their bikes daily. Many narrow roads in the city centre allow cycles only. In others, car speed is limited to 30 km/hour.
Bogota, in Colombia, had been experimenting with the idea of removing cars from certain stretches of the city since the 1990s. But it was only on February 24, 2000, that it held its first car-free day. At least 800,000 left their cars home.
Bogota went ahead to institutionalise its efforts to chuck cars. On October 29, 2000, 63% citizens voted in favour of organising it annually. And 51% supported the idea of creating a firm legal framework to eliminate peak-hour car traffic in the city by 2015.
What followed was heavy investment in an efficient Bus Rapid Transit that is connected through bike lanes, high parking fee, and pedestrian-friendly streets. Vehicle number plate limits imposed during morning and evening peak hours in 1998 were extended to all day restrictions, Monday through Friday, in 2009.
Congestion pricing is never a popular move. Like all cities, Stockholm in 2006 was apprehensive. But during the seven-month trial, congestion reduced by 30-50%. The share of positive news coverage increased from 3% to 42%, while the share of negative articles fell from 39% to 22%, wrote Jonas Eliasson of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in his paper — The Stockholm Congestion Charges: An Overview.
After the seven-month trial, the city authorities asked its people if Stockholm should continue with congestion tax. As many as 53% voted yes, making the Swedish capital the first European city to approve a road user charge.
Seoul, in South Korea, has been running a no-driving day programme since 2003. A voluntary scheme, it requires citizens to simply chose their day and register on the official website. In return, they get an e-tag for the car which gets them incentives such as reduction in auto tax and discount on parking fee.
In Delhi, there are no such incentives on offer. Moreover, our public transport is not dependable. Many areas in the city are barely connected. There is little road space for cyclists. Pavements are mostly unfit for walking. Cabs can’t be flagged down and auto drivers overcharge. But, not so long ago, Delhi did manage without so many cars when mass transit arrangements were even worse.
As cars became affordable and our purchasing power increased, we have rapidly made a convenience an obsession. Road rationing, like all emergency measures, is inconvenient for a lot of us. We can go on finding a hundred excuses, or just do the right thing. As the other great cities have already showed us, it’s all in the mind.