Will congestion pricing help Mumbaikars add an hour and a half to their day?

A year-long survey done in 2019 conducted by ITDP found that Mumbaikars spent an average of 85 minutes daily stuck in traffic. That also means an estimated productivity loss of over Rs 3600 crores per annum. Is congestion pricing the solution?

Mumbai dons the mantle of being the congestion capital of the world. It was accorded this dubious acclaim by TomTom, a global traffic management technology services provider that tracks real-time congestion globally across 80 countries, putting Mumbai way ahead of developed cities like New York, London, Shanghai and 405 other cities.

Mumbai’s 8.6 lakh cars contribute to a vehicular density of 530 cars/km across its 2000 km of road network, putting it way ahead of even New Delhi (over 28,000 km road network), which has almost thrice the number of cars. Mumbai saw the number of private cars and two-wheelers almost triple between 2001 and 2015—from 7.9 lakh to 22.7 lakh vehicles.  

A year-long survey done in 2019 conducted by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), that seeks sustainable transport policies and solutions, found that Mumbaikars spent an average of 85 minutes daily stuck in traffic. Private motor vehicles (four and two wheelers as well as OLA/ Uber taxis) that comprise just 19% of the city’s vehicular density, were the chief cause of traffic congestion in the city, since they took up almost 82% of the city’s vehicular traffic space, reducing average vehicle speeds to 20 kmph and even lower during peak hours.

The around 1200 commuters surveyed (male and female in equal numbers) from eight locations across the city said that they would be happy to shift to public transport provided it delivered on accessibility, reliability and comfort. As of now, only 30% of commuters use the over 3200 buses run by the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST).

The arterial Western Express Highway, S.V. Road and other main roads between Colaba and Dadar were found to be the most congested requiring urgent intervention to offer alternatives to commuters. With commuters travelling mainly for work (65% travel about 20 km per day), few can change their timings or workplaces. 

The city’s traffic continues to be linear with South-bound traffic lanes congested during morning peak hours (60% admitted to being stuck in it daily) and North bound traffic congested during evening peak hours (90% are caught in it every day). Clearly, the administration’s effort to decongest the island city by moving some of its administrative offices to business districts like the Bandra Kurla Complex have not had the desired impact.

Personal and economic cost

In fact, 90% of respondents complained that the time spent stuck in traffic affected their productivity, health and happiness. About 42% complained of health issues and 46% felt that congestion was compromising their productive time. The survey, conducted in collaboration with Symbiosis Institute of Economics, estimated productivity loss from traffic congestion at over Rs 3600 crores per annum in terms of fuel, health and loss of productivity.  

The ITDP survey felt that even a marginal 17% drop (3% in the city) in traffic volumes can help achieve optimum speeds of 40 km/hr. “People who choose to travel by sustainable transport modes like buses are also suffering the consequences of congestion and its impact on health due to unequal consumption of road space by private vehicles. Such inequalities need to be mitigated,” said Parin Visariya, senior associate, urban planning and design, ITDP. The report recommended improving street design, boosting public transport infrastructure along with good pedestrian facilities, and congestion pricing to deter vehicles from using the congested routes during peak hours. 

Congestion pricing 

Congestion pricing is a dynamic charge introduced in cities like London, Stockholm, Milan and Singapore (the first to implement it in 1975) to discourage vehicles from plying on congested corridors during peak hours. Unlike tolls, congestion charge is meant to ration road usage facility and generate funds for improvements in traffic management services, especially public transport. 

London has earmarked congested zones (Central London) that attracts a standard fee the moment the number plate is detected by any of the 650 Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras (ANPR). Stockholm has a cordon-based pricing system where charges are levied at its 18 entry-exit points. Singapore has Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) gantries placed at certain points that monitor fees of vehicles on a congested stretch. 

The fee is dynamic with its pricing varying with changing traffic conditions and routes and is reviewed every quarter. Cars are fitted with In Vehicle ERP cards that are expected to be recharged beforehand. Singapore also has the ANPR technology which it uses only for identifying violators.

Congestion pricing in Singapore is levied only at the Central Business Districts (CBD) to keep work zones free of traffic jams. Gopinath Menon, chief transportation engineer of Singapore between 1991-2001, and former project director of its ERP system, says that the pricing is much hated even after 45 years and still continues to be viewed as a means to generate revenue rather than as a traffic management measure. 

As part of Urbanlogues, a knowledge webinar on urban issues, Menon listed existence of a robust public transport system, a convenient and easy to administer monitoring system, a nodal implementing agency, good vehicular database and presence of alternative, non-chargeable routes as a prerequisite to introduce congestion pricing in a city.

The pre-requisites

“Absence of well-defined CBDs and non-involvement of a city’s multiple stakeholders could create difficulty in implementing it,” said Menon. This is particularly true for Mumbai, which has multiple stakeholders like the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the Regional Transport Office, Public Works Department and the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation handling various aspects of transport planning and execution even as the traffic police under the state home department handles fines paid for traffic offences.

But the ITDP strongly feels congestion pricing could de-clog roads as it would drive motorists to take other non-chargeable free routes. “Congestion pricing as a tool decongests roads, makes transportation more equitable and promotes better sustainable transport alternatives,” said Vaishali Singh, senior associate urban planning and design, ITDP.

When The Times of India reported about agencies like the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), suggesting a congestion tax in Mumbai, the comments section saw several critical views citing it as “looting trick” and a “stupid fee” not worth the shoddy services provided by the authorities. 

The original concept of congestion pricing was to use the revenue generated to upgrade public transport infrastructure. But with the BMC’s Rs 30,692 crores budget staring at a 50% drop in revenue (it earned Rs 12930 cr till November 2019 as against estimated revenue receipts of Rs 25,513 crores in 2019-20) due to abolition of octroi, and a dip in property taxes and development taxes due to the economic slowdown, there is no way to check that the revenue generated would be spent only on public transportation and not be routed to other civic spendings. 

Transport activist Sudhir Badami argues that existing public transport will not be able to cope with the additional burden of more passengers. “The public transport is exploding and a little more push will trigger migration out of the city and will kill Mumbai,” said Badami. Terming the congestion charge as detrimental to the city, Badami explained: “Cities get killed by such thoughtless plans because you are depriving citizens of a safe and comfortable mode of transport. This is not the way to overcome the shortcomings in public transport. We can’t disincentivise private commuters from cars to buses without offering alternatives.” 

Menon, who has been at the helm of Singapore’s traffic solutions, agrees. “The answer to congestion is not congestion pricing, but having a good public transport system. This, coupled with dedicated bus lanes on all major roads would be one of the cheapest ways of getting more people to use public transport.”

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