Why is India’s traffic still among the worst in the world?

ByVanessa Viegas
Mar 12, 2021 07:17 PM IST

Indian cities came in at #2, #6, #8 and #16 on the most recent TomTom world traffic index. How did other nations ease their snarls, and what will it take for us to do so too?

Sitting through traffic is among the least pleasant things we do. And some cities have it so much worse than others. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam in Mumbai, Bengaluru or Delhi, you’re on one of the world’s Top 10 most-choked roads, according to the latest TomTom traffic index report.

Everyone agrees that mass transit is the answer. Yet bus ridership in India’s metros has declined by 20% over the last decade.
Everyone agrees that mass transit is the answer. Yet bus ridership in India’s metros has declined by 20% over the last decade.

The index has been providing insight on traffic congestion levels across 400 cities around the world for 10 years. It’s powered by real-time traffic data and put together by the Amsterdam-based location technology provider TomTom International, which uses data from around 600 million connected devices to calculate, for example, how much extra time a driver will spend in traffic during rush hour in Mumbai.

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Over the past four years, Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru have consistently featured on TomTom’s top 10 most congested cities in the world for traffic. Mumbai, in fact, was at #1 in 2018 and has remained in the top five since.

The pandemic did temporarily ease the gridlock in 2020. Of the 400 cities surveyed, 387 experienced a significant decrease (average of 21%) in overall congestion. By contrast, only 13 cities saw their traffic jams increase.

But the top 5 remains familiar — Moscow returned to #1 after five years, with 54% congestion. Mumbai shares second place with Bogota and Manila, all seeing congestion levels of 53%. (This means a trip in any of these cities would take about 53% more time than it should.) Bengaluru is at #6 (51% congestion), New Delhi at #8 (47% congestion) down a bit from its last appearance at #4 in 2018. The other Indian city to feature is Pune, at #16, with 42% congestion.

The problem isn’t new; the real problem is that the solutions aren’t new either, planners say.

City planners turn blindly, again and again, to the same seemingly obvious solution: create more road space. But even with more road, infrastructure has been unable to keep pace with the growing number of cars.

India’s road networks have grown by about 30% over the past decade, whereas vehicle registrations have risen by almost three times. In January 2019 alone, at least a million-and-half (1,607,315) vehicles were bought and registered across the country — an average of 51,000 new vehicles a day.

“Congestion is only a symptom of a larger problem of misplaced priorities when it comes to urban planning and mobility,” says Vaishali Singh, a senior associate on urban planning and design at the India arm of the US-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a global non-profit organisation. “(Growth in) private vehicle ownership has surpassed the population growth rate in most cities. Yet cities continue to support them by creating urban highways and constructing more flyovers; instead cities should invest in high-quality public transport and walking and cycling infrastructure and incentivise people’s shifts to these modes,” Singh says.

As has been stated time and again, in text, numbers and viral animated graphics, a single bus, used to capacity, can take 30 to 40 cars off the street. A single Metro rake can take 20 to 30 buses off the roads (and move much faster, getting more people to their destinations in the same amount of time). Yet, buses get perhaps the least attention of any mode of public transport in India’s cities.

As a result, bus ridership in India’s metropolitan cities has declined by 20% over the last decade. Meanwhile, the traffic continues to take an economic, social and environmental toll. The average Mumbai resident wastes the equivalent of 8 days and 17 hours a year stuck in traffic jams. The average Delhi resident spends 7 days and 22 hours, according to TomTom’s 2019 report.

Cities must focus on public transport more effectively, and simultaneously encourage a shift to non-motorised transport — walking and cycling — for short trips, making this safer and easier with wide comfortable footpaths and protected bicycle lanes, says Singh of ITDP India. “And we must disincentivise the use of private vehicles by various methods including congestion pricing.”

Until then, take a book, because the jams are likely to get worse before they get better.

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