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To decongest the cities, India needs fewer cars | Opinion

There are ways like parking and congestion charges which would discourage people from buying cars. They can only be implemented if governance, that is the enforcement of rules, is far stricter

columns Updated: Sep 22, 2019 07:09 IST
Mark Tully
Mark Tully
Efficient governance would control parking, prevent encroachment, and make traffic flow more freely by enforcing rules. In Delhi, governance is so poor that the bus-lane experiment failed because traffic other than buses was not prevented from driving down the lanes
Efficient governance would control parking, prevent encroachment, and make traffic flow more freely by enforcing rules. In Delhi, governance is so poor that the bus-lane experiment failed because traffic other than buses was not prevented from driving down the lanes(Yogesh Kumar/Hindustan Times)
         

If there was any such thing as holistic economics, there would at least be arguments about whether the current woes of the automobile industry should worry us. Now that may sound like madness, bearing in mind the number of jobs being lost in the industry, but the fact is that putting more and more vehicles on the road might create jobs, but it also creates problems.

One well-known problem is pollution. “Don’t worry too much about that”, we are told, “electric cars are coming”. Maybe they are, but they are still some time away. Even when they come, they will not solve the pollution problem, bearing in mind the amount of fossil fuel-generated electricity they will use.

Electric cars will not solve the problem of traffic jams. Building more roads is no answer if it means the massacre of trees or the loss of precious urban green space. I can remember the days when Bengaluru (then Bangalore) was so green it was called a garden city. Now it’s as choked by traffic as any other Indian city.

There are ways like parking and congestion charges, which would discourage people from buying cars. They can only be implemented if governance, that is the enforcement of rules, is far stricter. In a book published by the MIT Press, mobility expert, Venkat Sumantran, and his two colleagues, wrote, “Above all city administrators are recognising the importance of governance for improving mobility efficiency.” Governance can never improve in India unless policing is reformed. In Delhi, two- wheelers regard traffic lights as applicable to others, but not to them. A common sight is two or more traffic policeman laboriously examining a helmetless scooter-rider’s papers, while traffic streams past them on the wrong side of a road divider. The road transport minister, Nitin Gadkari, has taken this problem head on. Apart from raising the penalties for traffic offences substantially, he has promised to turn to technology to catch those who break traffic laws. But that will still require a modernised police force to handle the technology. In the meantime, some states have already reduced the penalties Gadkari set.

Efficient governance will control parking, prevent encroachment, and make traffic flow more freely by enforcing rules. In Delhi, governance is so poor that the bus-lane experiment failed because traffic other than buses was not prevented from driving down the lanes. Even with good governance, Samantran and his co-authors say categorically, “Cities need far fewer cars”. They recommend cities “should support a wide variety of modes favouring pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit or shared mobility”. In Indian cities, not just Delhi, to mount a bicycle is to take your life in your hands. Walk the potholed, encroached pavements of Kolkata and you risk tripping and breaking a joint. In Delhi, we do have the Metro rail, but it doesn’t seem to have weaned more prosperous citizens off their cars, or more adventurous citizens off their two-wheelers.

What about highways? Should there be fewer cars, and, of course, trucks, on them? That’s less obvious, but is certain we would have less fatal accidents if we did. It’s also certain that full use should be made of the vast investment being made in electrification of the railways and freight corridors. The trend seems to be the other way, with the railways reducing fares on several categories of trains because of competition from road and air.

Many years ago, a senior railway officer said to me, “We don’t need to sell, we have more passengers than we can cope with.” Those days are gone. The railways now need to compete in the marketplace with advertisements, urging Indians to let the train take the strain. They are an essential element in a holistic transport policy and holistic economics.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 22, 2019 06:06 IST

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