In full gear

By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Last week , my eyes fell on two interesting news items placed side by side in a leading newspaper. One said that the automobile sector is growing rapidly at a rate of 26 per cent, and collaborations with foreign companies promise to push up capacities. The second said that India's petroleum products' consumption will grow in the next decade from 81 million tonnes (mt) to 150 mt.

There is, of course, a strong link between the two developments and further linkages with urbanisation, traffic congestion, environmental pollution, social values and equity. But hardly anybody seems to be asking if so many cars are really required. More than that, what are we doing about developing a balanced transport system which would meet the needs of different sections of people in all our burgeoning cities? This is not the type of planning issue you set aside even for a year. This must top the planners' agenda all the time. The speed with which cities are growing in the developing world is unparalleled in human history. And transport planning cannot go without land-use and environmental planning.

Forget the environmental hell-holes in the making. Let us just talk about traffic congestion. The very purpose of using automobiles will be lost if cars were slowed down to a speed of five-10 km an hour. And yet, at peak hours, that is precisely what motorists do in a city like Delhi at many traffic junctions and breathe in huge quantities of toxic pollutants. That is what I do every morning and evening at a particular point in my journey between office and home, even in a short stretch of about four-five km.

What is even more worrying than all this is that nobody is seriously looking at this problem from a national perspective. There are many cities in Asia which have the same problem. But worldwide, people are trying find solutions to these problems. Southeast Asian ngo s have formed a Sustainable Transport Action Network for Asia and the Pacific. In South Korea, ngo s have formed Networks for Green Transport, one of Asia's most active green transport groups.

In Europe too, despite all the investments in motorways and underground rail systems, the growth in traffic remains a major headache. According to the European Union ( eu ), road traffic increased by a third between 1985 and 1992. Highways are getting saturated and traffic hold ups -- or bouchons (corks on a bottle), as the French call them -- increasingly common. Time and fuel lost in traffic congestions cost the 15-nation eu an estimated us $150 billion a year. With government budgets tightening and people protesting against vehicular noise and pollution, making more highways also does not appear to be an easy solution.

But economic growth is putting more and more passengers and goods on the roads. More than four-fifths of all passengers in the eu travel by car. A British study found that slashing public transport fares by 50 per cent would cut car traffic and emissions by no more than two per cent.

Neil Kinnock, former leader of the British Labour Party, and now eu 's transport commissioner, says, "Without a change in attitudes in the next decade, we risk a total gridlock at peak periods in major cities, urban approaches and along sections of motorways that are already heavily congested." Kinnock is advocating a simple fiscal strategy. He has suggested hefty new charges on drivers using busy roads at peak times, while boosting investment in rail and public transport. But, expectedly, there have been strong protests from automobile manufacturers and road transport companies. Industrial houses and the general public are, however, more interested in solutions.

As a result, different governments are taking different tacks. While some are pushing rail systems and others highways, Britain has approved a strategy for tightening emission standards, allowing city governments to limit car use in city centres, and investing in roads where there are major bottlenecks.

Kinnock is also pushing for more efficient road pricing by reducing one-time car registration taxes and increasing charges based on road use. To begin with, Kinnock wants to change the eu 's own vehicle tax from a fixed annual tax paid by truckers to a fee that varies according to a vehicle's emission levels and weight. It would also allow national governments to impose surcharges on vehicles on environmentally-sensitive routes. Finally, he would like to introduce electronic road pricing that allows an automatic levy of fees on vehicles travelling at peak hours in specified congested road stretches. In 1997, Singapore will become the first country to do so. The Netherlands and Austria will follow suit in 1999 and Germany is debating a similar step for the year 2000.

It is becoming obvious that using a common property like a road is going to become very precious in the years to come, and especially so in developing countries. Making its use increasingly expensive will be the only way to reduce its use, or to move people away towards more benign uses. But I am sure that in India the leftists will immediately start saying that any such levy will mean greater hardship for the urban poor. And in the process the rich will go on merrily using this public resource at a cost so low that it will be disastrous for the nation. Just as it happened in the debate on energy prices.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.