Delhi’s odd-even policy unsustainable

The Times of India

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There is tremendous interest in the new experiment that Delhi government is running on the roads of the national capital. To complement efforts at curbing the number of cars, there is a barrage of advertisements on local radio extolling the virtue of sharing rides. It immediately makes you wonder: Why aren’t the advertisements about taking public transport instead? Because, as anyone who has ever lived in Delhi knows rather well, public transport is woefully scanty in the city. The underlying assumption for running this experiment is that this is fundamentally a “behavioural” problem and if we can change the bad driving habits of Dilliwallas, we can improve the air quality of the city and the health of our children. Could we possibly bury our heads any deeper into the sand?

To reduce the number of cars on Delhi roads the only sustainable solution is providing sufficient public transport. It is amply clear that anyone suggesting otherwise has clearly not taken a bus or metro at peak office hours in the city. Sharing rides will only work as long as the minimum number of people are traveling to common locations. It’s not a behavioural problem, it is basic economics! In all likelihood, the affluent in the city will buy another car and the not-so-affluent will buy another number plate. The poor in the city, in any case, remain beyond the ambit of this policy.

Mobility is an essential feature of urbanisation. In large cities like Delhi, with more that 18 million people, providing a secure, sustainable and viable public transit system is extremely vital to meet the mobility needs of the people. However, in the last decade much of the mobility needs of the people have been met by an increase in the ownership of private vehicles. For example, in 2001 there were a little over 9 lakh private cars and jeeps in Delhi. This amounted to approximately seven cars and jeeps per 100 persons. By 2014, however, this number almost tripled to more than 26 lakh!  Of course population also increased in this period, so in per capita terms there were 16 cars per 100 persons, an increase of 140%! In the last four years, this explosion of privately-owned cars was complemented by an unhealthy and rapid decline in the number of buses in Delhi from about 60,000 in 2010 to 40,000 in 2014.  Much of the increased mobility needs of people in Delhi have been met through private ownership of vehicles, not public transport.

With rapid urbanisation and high growth rates such a trend in private ownership of vehicles is not sustainable for any city. The much celebrated Delhi metro, which is one of the largest rail-based transit system in the country, was touted to be the solution to Delhi’s transit needs. A decade later, it is shocking to note that the metro has provided ridership to less than 5% people in the city. More importantly and very unfortunately, the metro has not made any impact in reversing the trend on private ownership of vehicles in the city.

Ordinary people in Delhi are holding their breath (pun intended) to see what will happen after the 15 days of experimentation. Within the government establishment, there is an urgency to announce the grand success of this Odd-Even policy. The Chief Minister, in fact, did make announcements of its success just a couple of hours after it was launched on the 1st of January! Troubled by rising pollution levels in the city, there are vigilantes around every corner eager to enforce the new traffic rules in the hope that the air will clear and our kids can breathe easy.

My own research has shown that strict enforcement is the single most important factor that reduces corrupt behaviour of people, including parking violations. But we must also recognise that strict enforcement of poorly-thought policies can have serious repercussions. It is critical that we pay close attention to the wise words ofEnrique Penalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport”.


This article first appeared in The Times of India on January 04, 2016. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.