Delhi has taken centre stage for spearheading transportation measures to curb air pollution. But before other cities rush to implement initiatives like the odd-even experiment, what can they learn from the capital’s experiences over the last two decades?

The Global Burden of Disease (2013) report ranked outdoor air pollution as the fifth leading cause of death in India, with around 0.62 million premature deaths in 2010. The transport sector is responsible for significant emissions of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxides and suspended particulate matter. It is estimated to account for 32% of nitrogen oxide emissions, whereas road transport contributed to 87% of the total carbon dioxide emissions in 2007. These pollutants have health effects such as bronchitis in asthmatic children and reduced lung function, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases or infections, and lung cancer.

More pollution in other cities

Like Delhi, there are 41 cities with a population of more than a million, including Gwalior (1.07 million), Raipur (1.01 million), Allahabad (1.11 million) and Ghaziabad (1.65 million), where particulate matter 10 or PM10 (particulate matter with a diameter of 10 microns or lesser) is at high and critical limits – higher than Delhi, in fact. Also, nitrogen oxide was at high and critical levels in six cities.

Cities have concentrated on bettering vehicle and fuel technologies and building bus rapid transit or metro rail systems. However, they need to focus on managing demand, augmenting their bus transport systems, improving last mile connectivity and enabling compact development. This will shift people towards non-motorised and public transport and avoid motorised travel trips.

Improving vehicle and fuel technologies

Delhi introduced the first generation of reforms based on a Supreme Court judgement in 1998, which helped improve emission standards for vehicles, implement the largest public transport strategy on compressed natural gas CNG in India, limit the age of buses, improve the vehicle inspection programme, and divert substantial truck traffic.

The Central Pollution Control Board observed that these measures resulted in a drop in particulate matter levels by 24% from 1996 levels. However, only a few steps were undertaken after – the metro became operational, the number of buses has marginally increased, Euro IV emission standards were imposed in 13 cities and a small network of cycle tracks and footpaths were built.

Shifting to public and non-motorised modes of transport is the need of the hour

Delhi’s public transport ridership share reduced from 42% in 1994 to 31% in 2014. Currently, there are around 6,118 buses (Delhi Transport Corporation and cluster buses) plying in the city as opposed to 11,000 ordered by the High Court in 2007. Around 40% of Delhi’s roads do not have footpaths, and motor vehicle mobility has been prioritised through foot over bridges and subways. Further, 41% of trips involve walking and cycling, which constitute over 57% of the road fatalities (Union road transport and highway ministry, 2014).

Across India, only 96 cities have some form of organised city bus systems (Indian Institute for Human Settlements, 2015). Similarly, an assessment of pedestrian infrastructure in five cities – Ahmedabad, Surat, Hubli-Dharwad, Mysuru and Bhubaneshwar – revealed that more than 60% of the roads had no footpaths. Urban India contributes close to half of all road accidents (0.49 million) and 38% of all road fatalities (0.14 million). This amounts to one road accident death every 10 minutes.

Thus, shift strategies need to establish and augment bus transport systems in cities, increase the frequency and reliability of their services, improve last mile connectivity by providing safer pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and enable multi-modal integration. Road space needs to be prioritised for the above, and these need to work with vehicular demand management strategies such as pricing on-street parking, congestion pricing, vehicle registration fees and fuel pricing.

Key long-term strategy

Between 1992 and 2011, Delhi’s physical footprint doubled while its people density (persons per hectare) reduced. During this time, four-wheeler ridership shares doubled and pedestrian modal shares marginally increased. At least 55% of Delhi’s 17 million people live within 500 metres of arterial roads, which are zones most exposed to vehicular pollution. The Delhi Master Plan has set a target for achieving an 80:20 modal share for public transport by 2020 and has adopted transit-oriented development as a key urban growth strategy.

This is a step in the right direction and cities need to prioritise avoid strategies i.e. enable compact, mixed use growth with affordable housing and parking management along with robust and integrated public transport systems.

Our cities need to respond urgently to the public health crisis of unsustainable transportation and urban growth. Despite relatively lower vehicle ownership compared to other countries, India’s vehicle sales, about 17 million today, are expected to double by 2030. Sustainable transportation then, is not a choice, but an imperative.