A few years ago, Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota in Colombia who is famous for introducing reserved bus lanes, addressed an audience at the Chhatrapati Shivaji museum in Mumbai. “From whatever little I know about India’s Constitution,” he said, “there is no fundamental right to drive or park in this country.”

What is treated as a right by the small minority of car users in our cities is actually a privilege. Since we genuflect towards the market these days, any approach to parking should price occupation of space according to demand, given the shortage of supply. Parking space isn’t infrastructure but the private use of public space.

Mumbai has stolen a march over other cities by reintroducing the pay-and-park policy that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation had sought to introduce two years ago. The plan to end all free parking had met with stiff opposition then, largely from south Mumbaikars, prompting Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to order a stay on the project in January 2015. Media reports said on Friday that the government has now lifted the stay and the parking policy will come into effect from March, after the election to the civic body is completed at the end of this month.

Under the new policy, parking rates for cars will rise from Rs 20 an hour and Rs 50 a day to a maximum of Rs 60 an hour. Two-wheelers will be charged at much more modest rates.

At first glance, the fees appear exorbitant. For a monthly pass, a car owner will have to pay as much as Rs 5,940 in prime areas with commercial complexes and offices. This figure will drop to Rs 3,960 in localities that are less in demand, and to a minimum of Rs 1,980 elsewhere throughout the city. Even public transport advocates believe it would have been better to raise these charges gradually, to ward off the protests that the influential car lobby is bound to raise again.

Three months ago, the traffic police in Bengaluru had proposed that parking rates be the same as those charged by malls, and this roughly approximates what Mumbai will be charging at premium places.

Where Mumbai’s motorists may feel the pinch is the fee they will have to pay for parking at night, for which the rates range from Rs 1,980 to Rs 660 a month. While it may seem extortionate, it works out to Rs 66 to Rs 22 a night, which is eminently affordable. In comparison, the flats many of them occupy, even in older buildings, cost upwards of a crore. Parking rates should also reflect the astronomical price of real estate, which can exceed Rs 1 lakh per square foot.

Today, motorists are being subsidised, though they cause traffic jams and pollution. And they don’t baulk at paying Rs 70 for a litre of petrol.

Decongestion drive

But the ultimate objective of the scheme is not just to raise revenue from parking from the measly Rs 12 crores a year to a potential Rs 1,000 crores. It is also to end the free-for-all, literally and metaphorically, that passes for the city’s parking policy.

And, further still, though even the municipal corporation may not internalise this, it is to help decongest the city by removing major obstacles to free flow of traffic, not to mention impediments in the path of pedestrians.

There is every likelihood that some motorists will switch to public transport, car-pooling or taxi aggregators, all of which will ease traffic. It will help the city’s BEST bus service, which has seen a sharp decline in use as congestion has increased commute time.

The Mumbai Environmental Social Network estimates that there are more than 350,000 vehicles, excluding two-wheelers, parked on roads, taking up a full fifth of their space.

The Delhi think tank Centre for Science and Environment noted that cars claim a 10th of the Capital’s urbanised land, which is the same proportion of slum dwellers in Mumbai, who comprise 60% of the city’s population.

In India, cars occupy an average of three spaces a day – at home, office and evening leisure – as against an average of eight in the United States.

Global practices

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has already started floating tenders for 92 on-street and 12 off-street parking lots, but needs to do more to curb the parking mafia, which harass motorists and drain the city’s revenue. It should take a leaf out of London’s book, where there are 2,000 people (including Lovely Rita meter maids of Beatles’ fame) to manage parking. Parking spots should be clearly sign-posted with hourly rates, and office complexes and cooperative housing societies should pay monthly rates at the civic bodies’ wards.

Motorists will argue that when older buildings were built, there were hardly any parking spaces, and that they should also be allowed to park at night in the central business districts of Nariman Point, Fort or the Bandra-Kurla Complex. However, they ought to be charged concessional rates everywhere to convey the message that there is no such thing as a free parking space, which has been provided with public funds.

Since we are enamoured with foreign cities, Mumbaikars ought to compare what other crowded cities, in Asia and elsewhere, charge. In Hong Kong, the rate is Rs 146 an hour and Rs 11,900 a month, London charges Rs 160 and Rs 24,000, and New York Rs 280-Rs 1,400 and Rs 14,000, respectively. Mobility in these cities is enhanced by efficient public transport without the congestion of cars.

Maharashtra has compounded the problem by incentivising the provision of public parking spaces within high-rise complexes. It gives away a floor-space index (the ratio of built-up space in proportion to a plot size) of 400 square feet for every two such parking spaces. This 400 square-foot space costs only Rs 8 lakhs to construct, but the builder gets, even at the modest rate of Rs 20,000 per square foot, Rs 80 lakhs worth of real estate, all in “public interest”.

Darryl D’Monte is Chairman Emeritus, Forum of Environmental Journalists in India.