Improving mobility for clean air: Why cities fall short of their goals

Transportation and mobility strategies are the weakest link in the National Clean Air Action Plans 

By Anannya Das, Shubham Srivastava
Published: Friday 27 January 2023
Photo: iStock__

The National Clean Air Action Programme (NCAP) notified in 2017 is the largest national scheme that funds pollution reduction strategies in 132 cities that failed to meet national air quality standards for five years. It includes action plans for eight sectors. 

From 2018-2022, implementation of these plans was supported by NCAP funding. In 2021, an additional 15th Finance Commission funding was sanctioned for the following five years. 

On an average, action points for the mobility sector form around a quarter of all NCAP actions in a city.

Action points for mobility sector vs rest in 17 cities 


Source: CPCB website

The action points are supported by central government funding but implementation has remained tardy. This is because local agencies lack clarity on targets and implementation timelines as well as the manpower and capacity needed for implementation. 

The challenges can be grouped into four major categories: 

Knowledge gap

The notion that improving urban mobility depends solely on creating new transportation infrastructure is one of the biggest factors holding back cities. 

One of the most popular action points in the clean air action plans developed by cities under NCAP is “construction of expressways / bypasses to avoid congestion”. This, however, is a transport strategy disguised as a ‘mobility’ strategy. 

New roads do not reduce congestion on their own, because of ‘induced demand’, empirical studies showed. It just increases temporary excess supply of road space, which leads to temporary higher travel speeds and in turn, more traffic. 

Thus, managing the existing space instead of providing a new road to circumvent congestion is the solution. Similarly, area-based parking management instead of increasing parking space and optimising bus services through route rationalisation of buses, Intelligent Transport Management System-based scheduling as well as lane management instead of simply increasing the fleet size are more efficient measures. 

Mitigating emissions in urban areas will not improve mobility 

Vehicular emission is a major contributor to air pollution. In mitigation strategies, vehicle technology gets more importance than improving urban mobility. This is probably because the link between the latter and emission reduction is difficult to establish. 

An ideal emission mitigation strategy for mobility should encompass the following:

  1. Fuel economy and vehicle technology improvement to reduce tailpipe emissions
  2. Higher share of trips by sustainable modes of transport in the total mix
  3. Public transport network, it’s carrying capacity, optimizing services, affordability
  4. Improving street network to prioritise pedestrian and non-motorised transport activities
  5. Parking management to rationalise use of limited urban space, parking pricing to justify equitability in usage, vehicle restraint strategies to discourage dependency on private vehicles 

Today, while some actions are visible to reduce tailpipe emissions, rest of the steps still need tangible targets. 

Congestion is directly proportional to higher concentration of toxic emissions. But ‘congestion’ in itself is not a problem. It is a consequence of the various challenges in the mobility service remaining unaddressed.  

Secondly, measuring change induced through the mobility segment is indirect and often visible only in the longer term. And when small gains (building new highways and lane expansion) are celebrated over long-term solutions, real actions (optimising public transport, travel demand management, parking area management, streets that cater to all) take a backseat. And this feeds to the cycle of problems. 

Strategic sub-sectoral mobility interventions and not just emissions mitigation strategies are needed to reduce congestion. 

Regulatory shortfall

Mobility is a state subject in the Indian constitution. But the municipalities acts in all states don’t enable mobility as a dedicated service under the purview of the urban local bodies. 

But in every state, the acts empower the municipal corporations to divide, improve and modify land within its jurisdiction to provide physical and social infrastructure services such as water supply, waste collection, road development, building survey, demographics, education, among others. 

By definition, it is only ‘road’ that is to be overseen by the agencies in contrast to the entire gamut of mobility services.

For enabling mobility as a service, the Central Motor Vehicle (CMV) Act, 1988 (amended in 2019) enables registration of all categories of vehicles, commercial permits for passenger and goods vehicles and route permits for smaller vehicles for intermediate transport operation in cities.

The State Road Transport Act, 1950 has provisions for both intercity and intracity bus services. But apart from registration under the CMV Act, there is no law governing services such as intermediate public transport modes like autos, e-rickshaws, gramin seva and others.

It is discouraging to observe that these acts have not been amended to bring mobility services under urban local bodies even after almost seven decades since promulgation. 

If not for federal funds, mobility actions don’t have a taker

From time to time, some kind of external funding was used to implement mobility action plans in cities, a review showed.

As of 2022, a total of 184 cities received some kind of central funding. When filtered for mobility services, the number of cities dropped to 70.

As much as 21 per cent funds under the Smart Cities Mission (launched in 2015) and 66 per cent under NCAP funds have been allocated to transport actions. But most of these funds were utilised for road network enhancement and beautification. 

Around 67 per cent of allocated mobility funds from the Smart Cities Mission funding went towards some kind of road improvement, a 2019 assessment by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment found.

Funding in cities

Comparison funding in cities a) Cities that received some kind of central government funding (b) Cities that received funds for wholistic urban development (c) Cities that received funds only for sustainable transport actions Sources: Collated by CSE

Strengthening of urban mobility services such as buses, metrorail and mass rapid transit system have mostly happened with central schemes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission launched in 2005, Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles schemes I & II and others. 

It is only metro rail that receives central funding. In 2002 when an ordinance was passed to implement the Metro Railway Operation and Maintenance Act, 2002 that enabled the metrorail to be jointly funded by the Centre and state. Delhi set the precedent for other cities in this case. 

The way forward: First, every city should define smaller quantifiable targets for implementation under the respective mobility actions given in their clean air action plans. 

Second, monitoring implementation targets is non-negotiable.

Third, it is only right that local implementing agencies like municipalities and corporations have a dedicated service department that can enable mobility services and related concerns. As an enabler, this department will be the nodal agency for all action plans, monitor targeted implementation, identify service gaps, monitor modal split and organise informal services.

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