Thursday, June 30, 2011

Contrasting tales of traffic management from both sides of the Atlantic

The prevailing traffic management paradigms on both sides of the Atlantic could not have been more contrasting. On the one side American cities are implementing policies that adapt cities to accommodate driving (by intelligent transport systems to improve traffic flow and apps to help drivers find parking spaces), while on the other hand European cities are creating environments that are hostile to cars (congestion pricing, outright car bans from green and pedestrian zones, closely spaced red lights, speed and parking restrictions, pedestrianization etc).

The strategies employed by European cities aims to make car use expensive and difficult and thereby force them into using other modes of transport. As a Times article writes, these policies complement inherent pedestrian friendly conditions,

"Built for the most part before the advent of cars, their narrow roads are poor at handling heavy traffic. Public transportation is generally better in Europe than in the United States, and gas often costs over $8 a gallon, contributing to driving costs that are two to three times greater per mile than in the United States... European Union countries probably cannot meet a commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions unless they curb driving. The United States never ratified that pact. "

Over the past two decades, there have been a marked shift towards policies that seek to make cities more inviting, with cleaner air and less traffic. In cities like Zurich, carless households have increased from 40 to 45 percent in the last decade, and car owners use their vehicles less. A stunning 91 percent of the delegates to the Swiss Parliament take the tram to work! Shopping malls and business districts have limited parking lots, thereby incentivizing people to get there on public transport.

Further, even as American cities try to synchronize green lights to expedite traffic flow, European cities have been shortening the green-light periods and lengthening the red light times so as to reduce waiting times for pedestrians. In stark contrast to countries like US and India which stipulate minimum parking space for apartment units and new buildings, building codes in Europe cap the number of parking spaces in new buildings to discourage car ownership. Store owners in Zurich who had worried that road closings and pedestrianization would reduce business have been pleasantly surprised to see 30-40% increase in pedestrian traffic.

Edward Glaeser opposes restrictions that bar drivers for the sake of barring driving (multiple red-lights etc) and favors policies that internalize the social costs (congestion fees, higher parking fees etc). Alex Marshall argues that "a city more oriented around walking, biking and transit is more desirable place to live and work".

Apart from an enabling policy framework, one of the most important but less discussed reasons for Europe's success with policies that restrict car usage is the very high marginal conformity to these restrictions among its citizens. In other words, once regulations are put in place, very few people jump red lights, stray into congestion and pedestrain zones, over-speed or not stop for pedestrians, or park their vehicles illegally.

In contrast, in countries like India, such violations are more common than observance of rules. As I have blogged earlier, the deterrent effect of enforcement acts mainly at the margins, on that minority who are most likely to violate, while it becomes ineffective when the majority are violators. Such violations persist because of their convenience - minimal or no costs, ease, socialization, inaccessibility to alternatives etc.

Having said that, it cannot be an excuse for lax enforcement. Some policies like high parking prices, pedestrianizing certain areas, restricting car usage into city centers at peak times etc, which are relatively less difficult to enforce should immediately form part of any meaningful attempt to reduce traffic congestion.

In any case, in the absence of good, world class, and affordable public transit systems, any set of policies aimed at restricting car use anywhere in the world, while laudable, are certain to fail. Whatever else central, state and local governments in India does to contain traffic congestion, massive investments in world class public transit is a sine-qua-non.

1 comment:

Fredrick said...

Very interesting blog from top to the end .... thanks for the great share

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