Covid-19 aftermath: Longer traffic jams, newer choke points in Delhi
The Covid lockdowns have had a major impact on traffic and mobility patterns in the Capital -- jams are continuing beyond peak hours, new chaos hot spots are emerging, and fewer rides are being made to public transport hubs once restrictions have been lifted, according to assessments by the traffic police and data from Google Mobility Trends.
During the first lockdown imposed in March 2020 to curb spread of Covid-19, the city of cars – as Delhi is often referred to since it has over 10 million vehicles, the maximum in the country -- fell silent with its chock-a-block abruptly empty. An analysis by the Delhi traffic police shows that between March and June 2020, the travel time in the city reduced by 40-60%, depending on the location. For instance, travelling from residential localities in east Delhi to west Delhi took around 40 minutes as opposed to over an hour in the pre-pandemic days.
The situation, however, changed quickly after June 2020, as people started resuming travel to workplaces, recreational spots, and to supermarkets and malls, with the government relaxing curbs as part of its unlock guidelines.
New choke points
The return of vehicles led to new traffic patterns emerging. Senior traffic police officials said that over the last year, at least 20 arterial stretches where traffic was not heavy have become new congestion points.
“By November last year, we started noticing increased traffic jams. In fact, over the last year, there is a change in traffic patterns. We are seeing more roads turning into congestion points in addition to the existing choke points,” said a senior traffic official, who asked not to be named.
Traffic police records show that stretches such as the Ring Road near Safdarjung Hospital, Sri Aurobindo Marg near Hauz Khas, Rajouri Garden (Najafgarh Road), Ajmal Khan Road (near Karol Bagh), Pankha Road (near Hari Nagar) are some of the stretches where heavy traffic jams are being reported more frequently.
“A stretch emerges on our radar if there are recurrent traffic jams being reported from there over a significant period of time. The criteria is that the traffic on these roads are not caused by a temporary reason such as a vehicle breakdown or an accident, but because of high traffic volume,” the traffic official added.
Heavier traffic at regular trouble spots
As new traffic choke points were emerging, snarls on the regular chaos hot spots was getting denser too, said traffic police. Estimates show that on the busiest stretches of the city, including ITO junction, Ashram Chowk, Britannia Chowk, Mukarba Chowk, Delhi-Noida Direct Flyway, and Dhaula Kuan crossing, the traffic volume during peak rush hours increased by 10-12% over the last year compared to the pre-lockdown period. Some of these stretches are also breaking away from the original patterns of “peak hour traffic”— which was categorised by the traffic police as 8am to 12pm and 4pm to 8pm, when the traffic picked up on roads.
Complaints received by the traffic department’s control room between June 1 and July 20 this year show that stretches such as the ITO intersection, Mukarba Chowk, Ring Road (from Hyatt Hotel to AIIMS flyover), Ashram intersection, Britannia Chowk, Kashmere Gate (near ISBT), Rajouri Garden crossing (Najafgarh Road), Dwarka Road (near the Palam flyover) and Outer Ring Road (near Hauz Khas metro station) are now reporting traffic jams beyond peak hours. To be sure, some of these stretches -- such as Ashram -- have peculiar problems such as haphazard construction work.
At the ITO intersection, which is categorised as one of the busiest stretches in the Capital, traffic volume during the pre-pandemic days was around 250,000 to 300,000 vehicles (during peak hours). In September 2020, the traffic volume increased marginally to around 325,000 to 340,000, but jams were still limited to the four hours in the morning and four hours in the evening with relatively smooth flow during the rest of the day. Since June 10 this year, when traffic movement resumed after the second lockdown imposed in April this year, the traffic volume has been high through the day. A short-period estimate shows that the intersection has been recording around 400,000 vehicles during peak hours, and jams now continue on the stretch for almost the entire day.
According to Google’s mobility trends the city’s traffic pattern was changed by the pandemic. The tool tracks the number and length of visits people make to certain kinds of places compared to a baseline – in this case, a five-week period between January 3 and February 6 this year.
After the lockdown was announced last year, Delhi saw a drop of nearly 80% in people’s trips to retail and recreational places, parks, supermarkets, pharmacies and workplaces, the trends show.
Public transit, which includes places such as bus and train stations, saw the highest drop in people’s mobility in a week after the lockdown was announced, as much as 88%.
This, however, has been gradually changing with the Capital easing lockdown measures over time. For example, on April 1 last year there was a 73% drop in visits to supermarkets and pharmacies compared to the baseline, but the drop was 64% on May 1, 27% on June 1, 26% on July 1 and 20% on August 1 last year.
The most recent mobility trends, of July 26 this year, show that the drop in visits to retail and recreational spots such as cafes, shopping centres cinemas and libraries has reduced to 29% and to workplaces has dropped to 30%. Movement around residential areas across the city has seen an upward swing, with a 9% increase.
Fewer trips to public transport hubs
The most worrying trend, according to experts, is that fewer trips are being made to public transport hubs such as Metro stations and bus stands. The mobility trends show that even after the public transport modes resumed services, there was a drop of 24% in mobility around these spots as compared to the baseline.
To be sure, curbs were imposed on seating capacity in public buses and the Metro in accordance with the Covid protocols. Though 100% seating has now been allowed in DTC buses and the Metro, standing is not allowed to discourage crowding.
Experts say that besides the curbs on seating capacity, the concern over health and safety in public transport also discourage people from using them. This, they said, means that even those who used their private vehicles only for shorter commutes have started using private vehicles more often, leading to a more vehicles on city roads than during the pre-pandemic days.
An analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an organisation focusing on public interest research and advocacy, showed that the mean travel speed on 12 major stretches in Delhi increased from 24 kmph pre-lockdown to 46 kmph during the lockdown. This again reduced again to 29 kmph after the lockdown between October and November 2020 as the government announced phased reopening of activities.
Delhi Metro Rail Corporation said even after full seating capacity has been allowed inside the trains, the network is running at 20% of its capacity. This is also resulting in long queues outside stations.
“Even though the public transport modes are now operational there is a fear among people that travelling in such close proximity with others might increase the chances of infection. This could undo the years of work that has been done in getting people to ditch their private cars and use public transport modes,” Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director research and advocacy, CSE, said.
She added, “People who owned a private vehicle, but chose to travel in metros and buses, now prefer to travel via their own cars, because of safety and convenience.”
This, however, is not a trend unique to Delhi. Researchers at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, predicted in June last year the possibility of a sweeping switch to “single-occupancy vehicle” dominating the roads of at least 16 US cities, resulting in the risk of extreme traffic post pandemic.
Focus on congestion management
Traffic police and experts said that, in a post-pandemic world, the focus will have to be on congestion management and on coming up with innovative measures to control dependence on private vehicles.
“Policing will have to focus on congestion management. As enforcers of traffic rules, it is certainly our job to ensure that traffic rules are followed and if not people are penalised, but the focus should be to manage congestion and along with it create awareness of best practices,” said Muktesh Chander, special commissioner of police (traffic).
Chander said that he wrote to his colleagues in July, asking them to shift their focus on congestion management on arterial roads, as opposed to penalty-based policing.
Sewa Ram, professor of transport planning at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), said that the new commuting patterns of the city will have to be studied thoroughly so that a holistic plan can be made around it.
“This is a scenario that no one in the world has seen before. The increase in congestion could be a temporary impact of the pandemic, but we must prepare for the worst and plan on how the city’s infrastructure needs to be prepared to handle this new load,” Ram said.