28 Jul 2015 19:28 IST

We’re doing nothing to address gridlock

India must decongest now. It must restrict the number of cars on city roads and encourage car-pooling

The average speed of traffic going through the city centre in Bengaluru was recently clocked at an abysmally low 10 km per hour. This means that a person who lives about 15 km away from work has a three-hour commute each day. A commuter in Beijing, however, would gladly trade his life with a Bangalorean’s. Beijing commutes an average five hours a day.

Given that time in a day is a finite quantity, commuters try all sorts of tricks to beat gridlock. Some leave home early to make it to work/college faster, and do the same on the return. In the Greater Washington metro areas, as far back as 20 years ago, “66 before 5”, was a mantra for drivers who lived in the western suburbs. If they didn’t hit I-66, the main feeder route east into town, before 5 am, their commutes would get gridlocked and become miserable.

But leaving so early each morning meant that their lifestyles had to adapt too. Gym memberships in sports clubs downtown showed a spike upward. Drivers would drive to a gym in the downtown area in their pyjamas, finish their workout, shower and change to business clothing before completing their last mile commute to their offices.

The problem with time shifting is that if everyone does it, gridlock simply extends to non-peak hours of the day. This is already happening in Indian metros, with roads being busy always, except during very late hours of the night or early hours of the morning.

Rapid urbanisation

Others continually experiment with the way they commute to work. Fed up of two-hour commutes by road each way every day, a Bengaluru friend told me he now takes an autorickshaw to Yeshwantpur Railway Station, takes a long-distance train to Chennai that has a one-minute stop at Whitefield, and travels by auto in the reverse direction to get to work. He was proud of his new found trick that now saves him 25 minutes each way.

The issue — how disproportionately quickly the world is urbanising — is much too large, however, for individual solutions to work effectively. Countries around the world have tried different ideas that have offered some relief. In the US and other countries such as Australia and New Zealand, a High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane is restricted to vehicles which carry at least 2-3 passengers during peak travel times. Transit buses, car-pools and van-pools are allowed to zoom by in these dedicated lanes staring down at cars with single drivers stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Latin American countries have experimented with “Road space rationing”. In Sao Paulo and Mexico City, this law simply restricts travel based upon the last digits of the licence number (for example, odd numbered plates can travel only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays).

Singapore implemented “Congestion pricing” years ago. Accordingly, the country’s roads charge premium tolls during peak hours discouraging travel — and hence, demand — during those times. This also applies to parking — parking spaces cost a lot more during daytime hours than night-time hours, for example.

Fuel, time, aggravation

Bill Ford, the Chairman of the Ford Motor Company and grandson of Henry Ford, says it best. In an interview with the McKinsey Quarterly last year, he said: “We are going to hit the limits of our ability to provide mobility unless we adopt a very different profile going forward. In most cities, if people have a car, they love their car and hate everybody else’s. Today, 30 per cent of all fuel burned in cities comes from cars looking for a parking spot. And that’s not only fuel. That’s time, that’s aggravation. The answer to more cars is simply not more roads.”

The Modi government has done little to address the serious problems of congestion and gridlock in India’s metros, problems so serious that they can constrain economic growth and quality of life. And what little it is doing is taking us in the wrong direction.

We seem to be building more roads to connect cities or expanding existing roads within cities, often removing walk-paths. We are encouraging production of new cars. India, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, could end up making nearly 4 million new cars in 2015, the majority of which will hit Indian roads (once one accounts for exports). Meanwhile, older cars will continue to ply because the country has not developed a system to recycle clunkers.

Too little, too late

The government has invested billions of dollars in metros but these solutions may be too little, too late. Bengaluru’s Metro, when fully implemented, benefits only a small portion of the city’s dwellers, who still must rely on roads to get to and from a Metro station.

India has shown that it can leapfrog technology to adapt more efficient solutions to suit it and it should begin doing the same to address gridlock. For example, when the world was investing in the Public Switched Telephone Network, India quietly leapfrogged this technology and went ahead to implement a mobile infrastructure. Doing so has allowed vast rural swathes of the country to make voice calls and access the internet — something a land-based approach could never have achieved.

India must decongest and do so now. It should move State government offices to secondary cities, penalise businesses that move into or expand in the major metros, severely restrict the number of cars and vehicles plying on city roads and encourage car-pooling.

And it should begin listening to visionaries like Bill Ford. “You’re not going to put two cars in every garage in Mumbai, for example, even if residents there can afford it.” Instead, the right question to ask is, “Where are [all these] new cars going to go?”

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