Monday, December 7, 2015

Crossing the rubicon in urban air pollution and traffic management

The decision of the state government of Delhi, prompted by a direction on air pollution from the National Green Tribunal, to prohibit private cars and two-wheelers with number plates ending in odd and even numbers on alternate days may well be India's crossing the Rubicon moment in combating urban traffic congestion and air pollution. It is the first time demand constraining policies are proposed to be implemented by an Indian city. 

The measure has predictably not gone down well with opinion makers and vehicle users. The expected responses are out - it will be difficult to enforce, should be after good public transport is put in place, will encourage users to adopt measures to circumvent it, should have been part of a menu of measures, and so on. All logical arguments and with lot of merit. It is for these reasons that the results so far across the world have been mixed, though very successful in some places.

In fact, in an ideal world, this decision should have followed all the aforementioned measures. But in the real world of messy decision making in an Indian city like Delhi, with scarce resources, limited state capability, deficient civic-spiritedness, and lack of long-term political leadership, it would have been impossible to take such a decision if it were to be done only after all these concerns were addressed.

The conventional wisdom on addressing the twin problem of traffic congestion and air pollution in our cities have all been supply-side - widen roads, build fly-overs, expansion of public transit facilities, progressively tightening vehicle emission standards etc. But such supply side measures only take you so far in a context of fast increasing urban population, living standards, and social aspirations. Therefore, demand constraining policies, which seek to limit the numbers of vehicles entering the roads, assume significance. They include both measures to control vehicle usage - congestion pricing, alternate day odd and even numbered vehicle bans, locational bans, car pooling, prohibitive parking charges, etc - and those to limit vehicle ownership - number plate auctions, ceilings on new vehicle registrations etc. I have written about demand constraining policies here

All such policies, by their very nature, inconvenience and hurt politically powerful constituencies - vehicle users, businesses, vehicle manufacturers, opinion makers etc. This unpopularity, coupled with its complex nature, would invariably deter political leaders. The same is the case with a vast majority of such wicked problems in public administration. We do not have the luxury to sequence interventions, the omniscience to craft fail-proof implementation plans, and the state capacity to execute implementation plans to perfection. In such circumstances, the only way out is to identify binding constraints, prepare a carefully thought out implementation plan, and then bite the bullet. 

For sure, there will be considerable inconvenience and disruption when this gets implemented from the coming New Year. There will be enforcement problems galore - people will seek to possess two number plates for the same car, paint their plate yellow (to make it appear as a taxi), and even just ignore the ban in confidence that they can bribe their way if caught. But the answer is not to back away from such policies daunted by these challenges, but to implement them by putting in place adequate implementation bandwidth and contingency measures to iterate quickly on addressing the most egregious flaws and transgressions. The entire Delhi administration needs to be alert enough for the next couple of months and be galvanized into responding very quickly to the emergent problems and mitigate them with appropriate changes to the policy and implementation plan. 

Over the coming months, this should be followed up with measures to expand the public transport facilities (more general buses as well as air-conditioned ones), raise parking charges in certain commercial areas, and even try out limiting new vehicle registrations. This could well turn out to be a crossing the Rubicon moment in the fight to make our cities more liveable. If successful, it would turn out to be the smartest among all the proposed Smart City interventions and a strong demonstration of the country's political and societal appetite to run with such contentious and unpopular reforms. 

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