Unclog Delhi before it’s too late

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 15, 2016 12:34 IST
If there are fewer cars on the roads and an efficient and reliable public transport system, Delhi will be a very different city. (Ravi Choudhary/HT file photo)

As Delhi debates the pros and cons of the odd-even restriction in force since January 1, the city’s residents seem to be unanimous on one after-effect. For once, Delhi’s clogged arteries have cleared. In the past two weeks, driving has mostly been a breeze — reminiscent of a not-so-distant past when cars were few and road space was ample.

Clearing Delhi’s roads was not the stated aim of the government’s rationing initiative but just by halving the number of cars, the volume of traffic at some of the city’s worst choke points came down by 20-30%, police estimates show.

There is no official word from the government on extending the initiative. Road rationing is anyway supposed to be a temporary measure to fight pollution emergencies. In Delhi, the authorities are yet to assess its full impact on air quality.

But the 15-day experiment is already a potential game-changer. Car owners finally learnt to somehow manage without their vehicles. The Metro rose to the challenge and carried 150,000 extra passengers every day. Borrowing school buses to temporarily augment its fleet, the Delhi Transport Corporation ran 5,000 extra trips. Even auto-rickshaw drivers willingly downed their fare meters.

“If there were fewer cars and better public transportation, Delhi would be a very different city. The odd-even restrictions demonstrated that. Car trips account for just an eighth of all trips in Delhi. Yet, they clog the streets,” says Shreya Gadepalli, regional director (India), Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

Even with 98% urbanisation, the highest for any city in India, Delhi got public transport upgrades rather late. 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 make do with a bus service till 2002, when the metro opened. The autos were never reliable and the city never had a system of flagging down taxis.

Understandably, people found alternatives in private vehicles. Since 1980, there had been a 24-fold increase in the number of cars registered in Delhi. The number of two-wheelers increased 17 times. Even with the country’s most extensive road network, Delhi does not have enough space for its vehicles.

In September 2014, HT in its ‘Unclog Delhi’ series highlighted the problems that caused congestion. Our experts suggested short and long-term measures.

These included strengthening of public transport, better last-mile connectivity, removing encroachment and illegal parking, implementing a better traffic management system, promoting cycling and motivating motorists to use public transport.

Taking note of these suggestions, the Union ministry of Urban Development constituted a high-powered committee of 19 stakeholders that prepared an action plan to unclog Delhi. A nine-point strategy was devised and timelines were fixed.

Although a much-needed initiative, the committee’s primary focus has been on creating road infrastructure, say experts. “Out of the total Rs 41,095 crore set aside for decongesting Delhi, Rs 30,000 crore has been allocated towards building more roads,” says Ashok Bhattacharjee, former director of Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning & Engineering) Centre, who was part of HT’s panel.

There is still time to make amends. “Transport planning should focus on the mobility of more people in a faster way instead of paving the way for private vehicles,” says Bhattacharjee.

“The current road rationing has shown there is sufficient space for wide footpaths, exclusive cycle tracks and dedicated bus corridors. Delhi should use this opportunity to create 500-600 km of metro-quality BRT to complement its 200-km mass transit. Systems like cycle sharing should be created for last-mile connectivity,” says Gadepalli.

The ideas are there. The impetus is there. Delhi needs the political will to reinvent its mobility. “The past 15 days has got people thinking about the alternatives. We shouldn’t lose this momentum,” says Bhattacharjee.

Starting today, Hindustan Times brings the spotlight back on this key issue in its next part of ‘Unclog Delhi’. Fighting congestion is not about convenience. “It is a fight,” wrote Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in his book “Triumph of the City”, to “ensure the city can fulfill its most basic function of bringing people together.” Delhi never had a better moment to rise to the challenge.

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