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Cover Story

Car Control

Aug 31, 2010 | From the print edition

Cities all over the world are checking car population to free their road space. Anumita Roychowdhury finds out where India is headed

It's just too expensive to drive

Andrew Parker, a business consultant in London, had enough of crawling down the choked roads in his car. When it seemed that things could not get worse a scheme of pricing car entry into congested areas of central London came along. This changed his life. "Since the congestion charge was imposed I have not taken my car into London. Using public transport is a much less stressful way of travelling into the city," said Parker.

In February 2003, London dared to charge cars in a highly congested 21 sq km area with 200,000 residents and five times as many jobs. Central London was the worst in the UK in terms of driver delay. Drivers spent half their time in queues, adding up to a loss of working hours worth £2–4 million (image15-29 crore) every week. The city had to find a way to cut down on the number of cars and support public transport. Ken Livingstone, then the mayor of London, set the road map for it.

imageThe effects were immediate and dramatic (See Also: Decongesting London). Although London had a relatively high share of public transport users, it further increased significantly. The motorists crossing the area under tax, as well as vehicles operating within the zone had to pay £5 (image370) initially and £8 (image590) subsequently between 0700 and 1830 hours. The charging cordon was initially limited to the eastern business districts of London, but was extended to western residential boroughs in 2007.

Congestion Tax has worked because it has forced people to take a decision. Somehow people seem less sensitive to the value of time lost in jams than to the direct cost of driving. Cost of the trip makes them think. But motorists' behaviour does not change if the congestion charge is covered by the corporate firms as perks.

London is now planning to charge according to the distance travelled within the charge zone. "The existing system charges for entering a zone but does not discriminate between the driver who enters and parks and the one who does errands driving inside," said Carlos Padero of the global network Sustainable Urban Transport Programme. "But enforcement will be technologically challenging," he added. Political will is critical for further expansion of the programme.

Pay to drive in busy areas

imageLennart Erlandsson, who has lived in Stockholm for many years, admits his driving habits have changed after the congestion tax. He sold his house and moved to an apartment close to the train station, from where it takes 15 minutes to get to the city centre. "I avoid driving to the city centre. The congestion fee was not the only reason for moving but it was a positive add on. On a regular basis the fees hurt."

The Congestion Tax in Stockholm is levied on vehicles going in and out of Stockholm's inner city, about 34 sq km area, between 06:30 and 18:30 hours, Monday to Friday. The charge varies depending on the time of day, €1-2 (image61- 122) to a maximum daily charge per vehicle of €6 (image366). It is either low or exempt on weekends, public holidays and vacation periods. Alternative fuel vehicles, buses, emergency, diplomatic and foreign vehicles and motorcycles enjoy exemption.

Initially, during the trial phase of the congestion tax in 2006, many residents reacted negatively. Finding various pathways bypassing the pay stations to dodge the charge had become a fine sport. People even started driving on the broadwalk or through parks. It was also common to remove the front licence plate to hide the identity of the vehicle when passing the toll gate. In some cases small covers were available on the Internet making it impossible to take a picture of the licence plate while passing the gate. Today all of those gadgets are out of the market. The municipality has clamped down.

After the full implementation in 2007 about 67 per cent of people were in favour of the scheme. Still there are cases of people not paying the fee. But public acceptability of the congestion charge has gone up.

imageThe Traffic Administration at Stockholm has evaluated the impact of the congestion charges. During the trial phase in 2006, the number of vehicles crossing the tax cordon dropped by 22 per cent compared to the 2005 levels. Traffic in early 2006 was affected more drastically because drivers took time to adapt to the congestion tax. But traffic increased thereafter and the actual drop in 2008 was about 18 per cent compared to 2005 (See Also: Gains of Stockholm).

In fact, the supply of public transport was similar during the monitoring periods. The Traffic Administration's report states that since the number of passengers has increased, but not the supply, the number of passengers standing in buses has also increased.

The scheme has augmented the revenue of the municipality. It is expec ted to earn more than €60 million (image366 crore) a year from 2010 onwards. This will be invested in improvements to the road network and transit facilities.

Public transport, not cars

imageMandy Ma, originally from the US, is married to Thorsten Volberg, a Berliner. They are happy walking and bus hopping in the German capital. "One is never too far from a U-bahn (Berlin's rapid transit railway) or bus line and there is always a stop near your destination. We don't need a car because we easily accomplish all that we need to without one," said Mandy Ma.

Berlin mirrors the trend in European countries that are looking at improving options for mobility, both public and non-motorised transport, and combining rules for environmental zone in city centres. Only cars with a certain emissions rating (shown by a sticker on the windshield) are allowed.

Like Berlin, 70 European cities are introducing low emissions zones to ban cars from downtown to improve air quality.

Dutch National Environment Plan has set a target that an average of 34 per cent of all passenger transport trips are made by bicycle by 2010. Otherwise, car kilometres would increase by 72 per cent over the 1986 level. The Netherlands has also approved a km-based road charging scheme. Non-motorised areas are catching up in Europe, and Copenhagen represents the success story.

"In many cities in Europe car sharing is picking up. Traffic calming measures and economic instruments are also in use," said Manfred Breithaupt of GTZ, a body for technical cooperation under the German government involved with urban transport programme in Asia.

Fewer owners, expensive cars

imageCramming Singapore with cars can be perilous. Land area is limited—a quarter of Singapore is reclaimed from the sea.

Singapore has successfully met its mandate—restrict car ownership and restrain car usage since it implemented measures in the late 70s (See Also: What has Singapore Done). Assessment of its congestion pricing by the International Council on Clean Transportation shows that the traffic entering the congestion charging zone has dropped by 44 per cent and average travel speed has increased from about 17 km/hour to 33 km/hour between 1998 and 2000. Bus ridership increased by 20 per cent during the period.

But Singapore has also hit barriers. Its target of keeping the car growth rate at 3 per cent went awry in the past few years. Paul Barter, transportation expert with the Singapore National University, thinks the quirk could be in the way the car entitlements are estimated each year. If the estimate of the scrappage of old cars, for instance, is off mark, it can lead to overestimation of the quota of car sales each year.

imageTo curb car ownership, the Singapore Land Transport Authority fixes the quota of vehicles each year for bidding. Bidder has to pay for a 10-year Certificate of Entitlement. Demand almost always outstrips supply, pushing the price up.

Others feel the economic downturn may have also reduced the entitlement prices. The immediate result was increased congestion. The Singapore government has now slashed the annual growth target from 3 per cent to 1.5 per cent to calculate future car entitlements. Yet global watchers are puzzled by the share of car trips at 40 per cent of the motorised trips (See Graph). "The very high cost of owning a car has not stopped people from buying their first one and using it," said Dinesh Mohan, transportation expert at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

The quota system is now equated with elite club membership. It is expensive, but once acquired provides a range of facilities. Singapore has three to six high-speed lanes that promise very high level of service for the luxury use of car. Status, image and the perceived success of a car owner increases when a car becomes more expensive. Once the car is bought road pricing does not lead to big shifts from car to public transport.

imageBarter explains the road toll is fixed in a way that is just right to allow traffic to flow efficiently. Traffic levels are reviewed every three months to adjust the toll to ensure that the traffic moves at uncongested target speeds. For instance, if expressway speed drops below 45 km per hour, rates are increased to discourage cars. If it exceeds 65 km per hour rates are reduced to allow more cars.

As Singapore does not allow congestion, car driving can be faster than public transport. Car owners sometimes adjust to the road pricing by changing travel schedule to escape peak time road prices. But ownership restraints and road pricing complement each other. (Read More: Road Pricing in Singapore)

Actual car driving can come under even greater restraint when Singapore moves from the current entry-based charging to kilometre-based charging. "In the long term, charging per distance travelled may be the preferred method. Tests will be conducted in 2011 to study Global Navigation Satellite systems for distance charging," said Gopinath Menon, transport expert with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Limit on car ownership

imageShanghai fixes the number of cars that can be sold in a month and organises monthly bidding of car entitlements. Currently, the car quota is 7,000-8,000 cars per month. This has contained the car numbers. Beijing that has more ring roads, wide roads and subway fares half of Shanghai, has more congestion than Shanghai, said Cornie Huizenga, a Shanghai resident.

Shanghai started imposing quotas on car ownership in 1986. The November 2007 bidding shows that the average bid hit a record high US $7,267—a jump from US $6,863 in October. The auction attracted nearly 10,600 buyers. However, the system has loopholes. There are fears about people registering cars in neighboring provinces and using them in Shanghai. Shanghai has also been aggressive with public transport. There are now 10 subway lines, 400 km long and about 60,000 taxis. Cycle lanes and side walks have been augmented.

Other Chinese cities have not shown interest in such restraints yet. Some feel this is a protective move towards the vehicle industry. The Chinese are more inclined towards a model where a lot of people own cars but use them sparingly. Beijing is looking at the possibility of congestion charging, as is Shenzen.

Jams and more jams

imageIndian cities were not designed for cars. But cars are taking over roads. In Delhi the share of car usage is still 15 per cent—much less than Singapore. Yet this level of usage has gridlocked the city.

In a judgement in February 2010 the Delhi High Court set new terms for action. "Road space cannot be appropriated or monopolised by one mode of transport (cars), particularly when the bulk of the population depends on public transport," ruled the court in response to a petition against ban on cycle rickshaws. The court has directed setting up of a task force to recommend strategies for "ensuring equitable access to all kinds of vehicles."

Stage is set for restraint on cars.


The idea of limiting entry of cars in cities is praiseworthy. The idea of ring roads was first mooted in Rome if I am not mistaken.
It is the duty of media and scientific organisations to explain to the people that alternatives are available. People never think in that fashion. For thirty years ago I have witnessed that Jeep and Ambassador car drivers in Kerala used to switch off their ignition key when they were running down steep roads. In the present day people keep on the ignition key on while taking rest or talking to friends for several minutes without having any botheration for fuel loss and consequent loss of money. People never think in that fashion unless their spirit is alerted every now and then. Around thirty years ago I witnessed that Jeep and Ambassador car drivers in Kerala used to switch off their ignition key while they were running down steep roads. In the present day people keep the ignition key on while taking rest or talking to friends for several minutes without having any botheration for fuel loss and consequent loss of money to themselves.

I lived in Germany for several years. Government of Germany especially Ministry of traffic control and road safety advertises through television & Radio the method of fuel efficient as well as safe driving. It reminds citizens of their duty towards society and protection of environment. The programme is viewed by a larger group of people. The said television programme is very interesting to watch. These television programmers bring about viewable as well as enjoyable programmes. Anyway the media must be the forerunner in offering any such message to the general public.
I wish every success in your endeavour.
Jose A. Kachiramattam

23 August 2010
Posted by
Jose A. Kachiramattam

Apparently, can the author state how many times he/she uses a car daily/monthly? Perhaps the people who write such articles should ponder over their practices first. It is easy to be arm chair advisors but difficult for oneself to practice. So much for magazine's proposition!!

As regards to the article per se, unless the alternative is reasonably priced, safe, widely spread, punctual and comfortable, the idea of modal shift will just be wishful thinking.

1 September 2010
Posted by

It is besides the point whether the author practices what is being preached. The crux of the matter is that someone has taken a step to compare the strategies employed by different cities in the world to provide a more relative analysis, so that stubborn brains can get a better understand.
Reading the comments, I must say that the objectives was partially materialised.

6 September 2010
Posted by

Traffic situation is deteriorating exponentially in Delhi. Metro has given some respite but the situation is still miserable. The strategies employed by different countries shows concern from the government sector to the traffic situation, which as far as is invisible in India. I believe limiting the number of cars per household and making sure restriction in trade activity in the city during city peak hours will be an appropriate start. Further the traffic light system has failed in the highly congested areas. A design of the road has to be developed such that the traffic never stops.

6 September 2010
Posted by

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