A little known fact about Bogotá’s celebrated mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, was that he was almost impeached during his first tenure when he tried to implement a series of simple, yet revolutionary urban reforms. In the late 1990s, his ideas for a complete ban on on-street parking, the reallocation of road space to make it more equitable, and promotion of walking, cycling and public transport were unpopular among many groups. The city of London debated for 30 years before imposing congestion pricing, and while the scheme has been successful, there is a constant threat to get rid of it. This is because although car users are a minority, they’re often far more influential. It comes as no surprise, then, that when the Delhi government first announced its odd-even vehicle restriction scheme, there was resistance from several quarters – all of them, car users.
While several cities around the world have implemented similar car restriction polices, with varied results, such schemes would appear to represent a willingness to curtail the rise of private vehicle usage, that have several adverse effects on city life. It is surprising, therefore, that a day before Delhi implemented the second phase of ‘odd-even’, the same government announced it wanted to support the construction of more roads to solve congestion.
Delhi’s Rs 20,000 crore decongestion plan aims at enhancing road capacity via new roads, road widening, elevated corridors, flyovers, and underpasses. The proposed plan includes the construction of 300 km of radial roads connecting the core city to the under-construction east-west peripheral expressways. While the latter is being built to allow for a by-pass for vehicles not intending to enter the city, the former will now provide such vehicles with a network of high-speed, alternative routes through the city, resulting in congestion, pollution, and a greater risk of traffic crashes for city dwellers. Delhi infamously has 9,000,000 registered motor vehicles, higher than any other Indian city, and at 20% and counting, Delhi also has the largest percentage of road space than other cities. Increasing road capacity will induce even more motorised traffic.
It is interesting to note, that a 2014 report by Institute of Urban Transport puts Delhi’s mode share of private vehicles at 23%, of which 9% are cars, and the rest are two-wheelers. Walking and cycling account for 41% of trips made, and 36% involve public transport. Yet, Delhi’s decongestion plan remains silent on public transport and non-motorised transport, ignoring 77% – the majority – of trips made in the city.
Shift in approach
What Delhi needs is a paradigm shift in approach. While restricting car use is a great step, it needs to be complemented by other measures like scaling up public transport, and investing in safe infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. Delhi’s Rs 20,000 crore could be spent on:
- Scaling-up public transport, by procuring high quality, air-conditioned buses, not just for Delhi, but for the entire National Capital Region.
- Enhancing the reach of the existing metro network by building additional 400 kms metro rail network which will ensure better accessibility and connectivity.
- Investing in a Regional Rail Transit System of 200 kms would provide much-needed connectivity from Delhi to the surrounding region.
- Promoting equitable road allocation via Streets for All initiatives would transform Delhi’s 4000 kms of streets, ensuring that instead of being designed for cars, streets are designed for people.
- Implementing transit-oriented development that would promote the use of mass transit and provide affordable housing to lower and middle income groups.
These ideas are only illustrative of possible alternatives to spending money on building roads to counter Delhi’s congestion woes. The solution is to invest in better public transport, walking, cycling, and most of all, people. Dario Hidalgo, a global expert in public transportation who played a key role in the world famous Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit or BRT system of Bogotá says, “If you sow roads, flyovers and expressways, you will harvest congestion, pollution and road accidents” and therefore the solution to Delhi’s congestion is not building more roads but in providing mobility to its residents.