Last week, when the Delhi government unveiled a plan to restrict cars with odd and even numbered plates on alternate days, it was met with extreme views – both from the experts and the public at large. Some worried that the plan will create chaos on the streets. Others optimistically hoped that it will wipe out the pollution from the city. Neither belief holds water.

Delhi’s air quality has deteriorated due to multiple pollutants, the most harmful of which is the ultra-fine particulate matter or PM 2.5 emissions. It is these particles that cause the haze and the reduced visibility in the capital. They are so small that when inhaled, they travel deep into the respiratory system, leading to a range of ailments, including emphysema and cancer.

A 2011 study conducted by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in the National Capital Region of Delhi had found that the transport sector contributes close to 45% of the total PM 2.5 emissions. This is significantly higher than the contribution of private residences at 27%, industries at 24%, and the power sector at 4%. Given that the transport sector plays a deciding role in air quality, it is encouraging that the Delhi government is taking a proactive step to address transport emissions.

Experiments in Latin America

Around the world, several cities have implemented similar policies to curb air pollution. In 1989, Mexico City implemented a programme called Hoy No Circula to ban the circulation of 20% of all private vehicles between 5 am and 10 pm on weekdays based on number plates. Studies soon showed favourable impacts with a decline in fuel consumption, increased public transport ridership and better road safety. So by 1990, the restriction was extended to all vehicles including taxis, buses, minibuses and trucks. In 1995, the government modified the programme such that cars older than 1993 were banned on at least two days per week while newer cars were banned on only one day. But a 2005 government study revealed that the programme was circumvented by 22% of drivers by purchasing a second vehicle, usually a less fuel-efficient used car. Besides, congestion was still a problem. As a further step, a Bus Rapid Transit service was started in 2005 on a prime corridor in Mexico City, which reduced travel times and prompted people to move to public transport.

Similarly, in 1995, the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo introduced a rodízio (rotation) policy that restricted the use of 20% of vehicles in most of the São Paulo Metropolitan Area between 7 am and 8 pm on weekdays, based on the last digit of the vehicle’s license plate number. Surveys showed that the scheme was considered useful by residents, particularly those who did not own cars. A 2004 study said that 93% of cars adhered to the rodízio policy, even though it was voluntary, leading to a 19% reduction in carbon monoxide emissions. Thanks to rodízio, alert levels for carbon monoxide were not issued for the first time in 10 years. And by 1999, the policy was fully implemented.

Bogota, the capital of Colombia, too imposed peak-hour vehicular restrictions in 1998 under a programme called Pico y Placa. This policy was unique in that it was implemented as a response to traffic congestion, not air pollution. The result was that while travel times reduced by 40-50% during peak hours, congestion resurged in the times before and after the restriction period. Complementing the Pico y Placa programme were initiatives like TransMilenio (a bus rapid transit system), increased parking fee and additional taxes on fuel. In addition, car-free days and the construction of an extensive cycle path network helped the programme gain public acceptance.

Some solutions

It is clear from these examples that restrictions based on motor vehicles’ licence numbers can create a positive impact. However, if this is not backed with other “pull and push” strategies, the positive effect gets negated quickly. This is why, Delhi needs to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat emissions from the transport sector after studying the city’s mobility data.

Delhi has among the highest road densities (the ratio of the road network’s length to the land area) in not only India but also the world. Thousands of crores are spent every year to upgrade, expand and maintain this network, despite the fact that cars account for just 9% of all trips in the city. Unregulated and cheap parking further incentivises the use of cars. While congestion is a direct result of such pro-car policies, pollution, road traffic accidents, social segregation are indirect but equally alarming results.

Delhi indeed needs to take steps to counter the problems of pollution and congestion. But these must not be implemented in isolation – they must complement each other. Here are a few:

1. AVOID the need for long-distance motorised travel. Create high-density compact mixed-use development, encourage transit-oriented development along mass transit corridors to maximise access to public transport, and integrate land use with transport planning.

2. SHIFT focus and investment towards walking, cycling and public transport. Augment public transport by adding 10,000 buses, integrate Metro with buses, add non-motorised lanes on all major corridors. Build roads that are urban streets and not highways, promote carpooling and car-sharing, initiate cycle-sharing schemes.

3. IMPROVE the quality of fuel, vehicles and infrastructure. Adopt stringent emissions standards by advancing Euro VI norms, shift procurement of government vehicles to cleaner fuels, create low emissions zones in the city, create entry barriers for polluting vehicles through carbon tax, and develop congestion charging framework.

4. ENGAGE with the community to raise awareness and support. Continue and scale up initiatives like Raahgiri Day and Car-Free Day to spread the message around sustainable commuting.

While the even-odd vehicle restriction is a great initiative, it is only a start. To control congestion, reduce pollution and improve liveability, there must be a comprehensive strategy in Delhi.