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Traffic woes

Why Paris can keep half its cars off the streets but Mumbai can't

In India, efforts to replicate the French measures to reduce traffic congestion will be challenged by logistics and rich people.

Yesterday, on a smoggy Monday morning in Paris, only half the city’s motorists were allowed to take out their cars and drive to work – the half with odd-numbered license plates. Today, it will be the turn of the other half, with even-numbered license plates, to use their cars and motorbikes. This is the French government’s attempt to bring down air pollution levels, which crossed the safe limit last week.

In most Indian cities, air pollution levels are almost always well above acceptable limits. Vehicular emissions are one of the major pollutants in urban areas, but transport experts believe it would be incredibly difficult to implement a Paris-like solution in any Indian metropolis.

The main impediment, according to Sudhir Chella Rajan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, is social stratification. “In Indian cities, the personal car is not just a luxury, it is the decisive way in which the richest 5 per cent of our population can be insulated from having to experience the disasters of daily life on our streets,” said Rajan, who teaches humanities and social sciences at IIT and is a coordinator at the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability.

Politicians and bureaucrats also belong to this 5 per cent, “so there is little incentive to change the growing automobilisation of our urban spaces”, he said.

This has been obvious from the pace at which the population of vehicles has been increasing across the country. In Delhi alone, there was a 135.5 per cent jump in the number of vehicles registered from 2000 to 2012. Mumbai saw a 51 per cent hike in the number of cars from 2007 to 2013. Despite this, there have been few attempts to reduce the density of vehicles on the roads or to improve the quality of public transport.

“The aim of any city should be to control private transport and, as a response, increase the use of public transport, but in India, our priorities are all messed up,” said Rishi Aggarwal, a transport activist and member of the non-profit Mumbai Transport Forum.

That is obvious from the infrastructural projects planned for Mumbai. The city inaugurated a new 13-km Eastern Express Freeway last year and has several big-budget roads and sea links planned for the next few years, all of which would largely benefit private motor vehicles.

By way of public transport, says Aggarwal, the city spent Rs 3,000 crore to build a new monorail line. But though the first phase of which opened in February, transport authorities are yet to start feeder bus services from monorail stations to make them more accessible to commuters. So far, citizens have been using the small, four-coach monorail trains mainly for joyrides. A metro system, the first line of which is slated to open over the next few weeks, is already several years over its deadline.

There have been scattered attempts around the country to discourage the use of cars. Pondicherry’s Beach Road is converted into a pedestrian zone for a few hours every morning and evening to reduce traffic congestion. Bangalore’s narrow Commercial Street, says urban activist Solomon Benjamin, allows parking on alternate sides of the road every alternate day. “This has helped, because fewer people bring their cars in now,” said Benjamin.

In general, however, Aggarwal of the Mumbai Transport Forum believes a lot of municipal and government plans to address transport issues are merely lip service. In 2006, he says, the union Ministry of Urban Development came up with the National Urban Transport Policy, a set of guidelines for Indian cities to plan for people-focused transport facilities. Taking note of the growing urban population and traffic congestion, rising accident rates and increasing air pollution caused by vehicles, the policy’s advisory guidelines encourages cities to promote integrated land use, build more non-motorised public transport and allocate road space equitably, with a focus on people rather than vehicles. “Hardly any attention has been paid to these guidelines in all these years,” said Aggarwal.

It may be difficult for Indian policymakers to think of following Paris' example, but can India take baby steps? Ashok Datar, a transport activist in Mumbai, can think of many ways in which Indian cities could begin to discourage car use. “On certain arterial roads, we could ban parking on alternate days for cars with odd- and even-numbered license plates. This could get 60 per cent of the cars off the roads,” said Datar, chairman of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network. As an alternative, those roads could be flooded with frequent buses. “But the problem with Indian transport authorities is that they are simply not willing to experiment,” he said.

 
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