Relook at transport policy a must to ensure Delhi residents’ right to clean air

Emissions from transport constitute one of the primary pollutants leading to the shocking levels of air pollution in the capital region. Reducing this through an overhaul of transportation policy should therefore be top priority.

Given the current scenario of increasing pollution in Indian cities, it’s quite likely that we shall soon have to breathe from canisters of clean air to avoid chronic respiratory issues. What we’ve been noticing in Delhi is clearly a man-made catastrophe. PM 2.5 levels are at an all-time high and almost 10 times those seen in Beijing. Citizens are seriously considering options to escape the toxic and unacceptably high levels of air pollution in Delhi. But as things stand, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to do so, the burden falling disproportionately on the poor.

What is most worrisome is the fact that such pollution spikes are a repeat of what was seen last year, hardly unexpected. We have clearly not learned our lesson and are yet to figure out how to address this issue in a holistic manner.

A major source of the recent air pollution spike – apart from crop burning – is transportation emissions. This article thus focuses on reducing transportation emissions and initiatives that could be taken to improve air quality.

The number of registered vehicles in Delhi crossed 1 crore earlier this summer, with more than 90% of these vehicles being private two-wheelers and cars.  This number is only increasing, with private vehicles contributing primarily to the sustained increase.  What is alarming is that Delhi’s public transport ridership share reduced from 42% in 1994 to 31% in 2014.  Currently, there are only 6,000 public buses plying in the city, while the requirement is at least 12,000.  The Delhi Metro – with an extensive network of 218 km and serving more than 2.6 million on daily trips – is still not enough.

So, what is lacking?  A look eastward might provide some clues.  Tokyo’s integrated public transport system, for example, ferries more than 20 million people in the city (approximately 40 million daily passenger trips) very efficiently. There is something here for Delhi to clearly learn from and improve its transport system:

  1. Seamless integration of various public transport systems like metro, public and private buses is critical and essential to improve overall ridership and efficiency of the system. An integrated payment system (such as a smartcard accepted across different modes of public transport) can move people very efficiently from one mode to another. While the proposal has been in the offing for quite some time it keeps getting delayed.
  2. Improving first and last mile connectivity to public transport systems will help in moving away from private vehicle usage, as getting to and from bus/metro stops is a severe pain point for many commuters.
  3. Doubling the fleet size of buses in Delhi is long overdue and would help in increasing the public bus system’s carrying capacity, increasing bus frequency and reducing overcrowding.
  4. Development authorities need to be forthcoming and look at sustainable alternatives such as improving walking and cycling infrastructure, implementing proper and strengthening public transport systems, rather than focusing solely on widening roads and building flyovers, which primarily encourage increased private vehicle usage.
  5. As employee travel forms the bulk of peak hour travel demand, businesses/employers should encourage and incentivize use of public transport systems, curbing the use of private vehicles.

While all these solutions focus on improving the supply side or capacity of various systems, this alone will not do wonders. These solutions need to be complemented by multiple transportation demand management strategies discussed below, strategies that discourage the use of private vehicles.

  1. Congestion Pricing – congestion pricing in central districts and important locations in the city should be imposed to reduce the use of private vehicles; this after strengthening public transport connectivity in these areas.
  2. Stringent parking regulations, both on-street and off-street (building bye laws), will discourage commuters from using private vehicles for non-essential trips.
  3. Better land use and transport integration – municipal corporations and development authorities should work together with transit agencies and private developers to prioritize and encourage development that is transit-dependent and not automobile dependent. Creating transit hubs with high levels of amenities and services that encourage walking, cycling and use of public transport is essential. This is where TOD strategies could play a major role.
  4. Given the national government’s ambitious target to go all electric by 2030, the Delhi Government should create a roadmap and conducive transport polices to incentivize the purchase and usage of electric vehicles, both in terms of financing and infrastructure.

Finally, none of these would work unless citizens actively become a part of the solution themselves and work very closely with local governments to choose solutions that focus on the wider interests of citizens and society.

[Amit Bhatt, Director, Integrated Transport, WRI India has co-authored this article.]

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