A four-point action plan to improve Delhi’s air
The deteriorating air quality in Delhi has led the Centre to set up the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas. Every year, as the air quality reaches dangerous proportions, emergency measures are taken to ease the situation. However, in the absence of a long-term strategy, the problem recurs every winter. The new commission, it is hoped, will initiate a comprehensive, multi-sectoral action strategy.
The causes of poor air in the National Capital Region (NCR) range from stubble-burning in neighbouring states to construction dust, industrial pollution, localised bonfires to meet the heating needs of the poor and emissions from motor vehicles. Transport remains a consistent and significant contributor to pollution across all seasons and time frames. Several source apportionment studies carried out variously by the Central Pollution Control Board, IIT, Kanpur and TERI have shown that on-road vehicular exhaust emissions account for nine per cent to 38% of particulate matter (PM2.5) in the atmosphere. Reducing vehicular emissions alone could positively impact the air quality of NCR.
Short-term interventions like the odd-even scheme have yielded temporary relief. Some significant initiatives to convert the state’s bus and para-transit fleet to run on Compress Natural Gas (CNG) have also resulted some results, despite the substantial cost.
A sustainable plan to reduce emissions from the transport sector requires a comprehensive and multi-year effort. A four-pronged approach could help. One is deployment of clean technologies; electric mobility is a rapidly-growing choice, globally. India is focused on this sector, having formulated a National Electric Mobility Mission Plan and has instituted programmes that offer financial incentives for electric buses and other vehicles. However, effective deployment requires a comprehensive and actionable road map involving all stakeholders which has not been put in place. A phased road map stretching over 10-15 years needs to be prepared to raise the stakeholders’ confidence.
This road map must cover supply- and demand-side interventions – mandating purchase of Electric Vehicles (EVs), establishing charging and swapping stations, awareness campaigns, setting standards and incentives to vehicle and component manufacturers. It should establish the way forward for registering Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs), increasing its share on roads by 50% or more (of all vehicles) and mandating that all buses, locally- operated freight vehicles, auto rickshaws and taxis in NCR become ZEVs by 2035.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles (HFCs), though not yet commercialised, are said to be a fitting complement to EVs, especially to cover long distances of freight and passenger commute.
A second is adopting shared and non-motorised transport. The key to effecting a modal shift is to persuade people to move from personal motor vehicles to either shared modes, like buses, metro rail and shared taxis or to non-motorised modes, like cycling and walking.
Unfortunately, the quality of India’s public transport systems – especially our city buses – have discouraged private vehicle commuters from making a shift. To date, our city bus systems are primarily designed for affordability, not quality.
Affluent commuters seek high-quality options, featuring door-to-door travel, greater comfort, less crowding, and tracking and smart ticketing choices. They are willing to pay higher fares for such services. To earn their buy-in, public transport should incorporate a variety of premium services that ensure quality even if it means steeper ticket prices. A strong push for premium, vastly improved last-mile connectivity options, to and from the Delhi metro would ensure ridership.
Meanwhile, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is an emerging concept in some European cities that allows transportation services to be available on demand and as per need, through a mobile app. Identical to the app-based taxi services in India, MaaS cuts across modes of transport to offer multi-modal trip options based on willingness to pay, time availability and other parameters. In India, MaaS can revolutionise daily commutes and offer the much-needed solution for a modal shift.
To promote non-motorised modes, NCR must invest in well-planned and safer infrastructure for cycling and walking. Developing bicycling and pedestrian masterplans and implementing them effectively could be key. For shorter commutes, these can be important modes of travel.
A third is improving traffic flow. If traffic congestion is reduced and vehicles move seamlessly, then vehicular pollution will diminish. This is because moving vehicles will disperse the emissions effectively, ensuring they don’t get locked up in one location.
Staggering peak time travel could be a solution to distribute the movement of traffic over a longer period of the day. Offices and commercial establishments can adopt staggered and flexible timings for employees.
A fourth is reducing travel demand. Improving online delivery of public services can help reduce the average number of trips people make. Policies and supporting infrastructure that allow citizens to work from home and shop online will help this effort.
Likewise, mixed land-use planning could reduce trip lengths. Newly-developing areas should co-locate offices, commercial and residential addresses to minimise long commutes.
These actions to reduce vehicular pollution could begin the process of improving NCR’s air quality. However, the need of the hour is a focused, comprehensive, systematic and multi-year effort across sectors. Today, Delhi looks up to the commission to develop a scientific plan with a long-term vision, be adequately resourced and empowered to implement it. This holds out a glimmer of hope that people can breathe easy in future winter seasons.
Dr. OP Agarwal is CEO, WRI India.
The views expressed are personal