Car Control

Cities all over the world are trying to ease congestion on roads. Not the choked Indian cities, though. Time to make cars in India pay the real cost of using roads

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Tuesday 31 August 2010

Unlock the grid

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.


The 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.

Decongesting London
  • By vehicle registration mark, monitored by digital cameras
  • 200 pay point outlets in restricted zone. Payment through free standing machines in car parks and post and phone
  • Stringent penalty for violation


  • Traffic levels fell by 25 per cent within two days of the charge; journey time reduced by half
  • Congestion decreased by 30 per cent from 2003 to 2008. Weekday speeds increased by 10– 20 per cent
  • NOx, PM emissions down by 13-15 per cent in the same period
  • 60,000 less cars entered the zone in 2004. 50–60 per cent of this reduction was due to shift to public transport, 20–30 per cent due to journeys avoiding the zone and time, car-sharing and use of motorbikes and cycles
  • Peak time bus speed up by 20 per cent

Pay to drive in busy areas


Lennart 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.

No to charges

In April 2007 while releasing the PlaNYC for greener New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing for the city that loses over US $13 billion due to congestion. All car trips to Manhattan central business districts were to pay $8 each and the proceeds would have funded the transit improvement.

New York, known for its thrust on public transport, pedestrians and use of parking restraints, saw the defeat of this proposal despite support from business, environmental and advocacy groups. Opposition from the auto-dependent four outer boroughs with less access to mass transit stalled it.

A poll of residents in 2008 showed up to 67 per cent favoured the tax provided the money is used for mass transit improvement. Without this the support reduced to 40 per cent. But disagreement and political wrangling killed the proposal that had the potential to generate an estimated $390 million in the first year for investment in mass transit.

Even as New York failed, California moved ahead to list congestion charge as a strategy to cut greenhouse gases. San Francisco is preparing a plan for cordon pricing. Other areas are considering road pricing. Toll road and corridor approach are also catching up in US cities. But the risks of toll roads are congestion shifts to free-to-use roads.

On high occupancy lanes in San Diego single-occupant vehicles pay a fee each time they use the lanes. The project generates $2 million in revenue annually, half of which is used to support transit service express lanes in Orange County, California. Bridge pricing in Lee County, Florida, encourages drivers to shift from peak periods to off-peak or discount periods.

More global cities are finding ways to fight the car mania with parking controls, high taxes, road and congestion pricing, odd and even number approach, employee travel management and car-free development. They are also improving public transit and smart growth policies to reduce commute trips and distances.

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.


The 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.

Gains of Stockholm
  • Twenty eight per cent of all passages are by vehicles exempted from the congestion tax. Trips by alternative fuel vehicles up from 3 per cent to 13 per cent between 2005 and 2008. With their increased use traffic has increased. Exemption will cease in July 2012
  • Compared to 2005, car trips fell by half in 2008. Public transport trips increased by about 45,000. And more people cycle
  • Shortening of average journey times has saved US $85 million
  • A sharp decline in the number of people killed and injured has saved US $18 million
  • CO2 emissions from vehicles in the inner city fell by 10-14 per cent
  • NOx levels dropped slightly, less than 10 per cent, CO by about 15 per cent. PM10 levels 15-20 per cent. Health and environment benefits are worth US $13 million

Public transport, not cars


Mandy 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


Cramming 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.

To 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.

What has Singapore done
Certificate of Entitlement (COE): The Singapore Land Transport Authority fixes the quota of vehicles each year for bidding. The bidder has to pay for a 10-year COE, which is expensive Taxes: Imported motor vehicles pay customs duty of 41 per cent. Registration fee is US $1,000 for private vehicles and US $5,000 for company vehicles. Road taxes are renewed periodically to encourage low-emissions vehicles.

Taxes on cars increase 10th year onwards, 110 per cent in the 11th year to a maximum of 150 per cent of the market value of cars Road pricing: Singapore operated a manually controlled road pricing scheme from 1975-98. Motorists paid for entry into a central restricted zone Electronic road pricing: Introduced in 1998. Overhead gantries deduct the charges from a smart card onboard.

Enforcement cameras assess fines in case of violation. Motorcycles, heavy vehicles added. Operating costs are 10 per cent or less of the revenue collected through the system

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.


Barter 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


Shanghai 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


Indian 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.

Odd in, even out
In Mumbai the High Court directed a pilot project on car restraint. This is based on the High Court-appointed V M Lal Committee report that proposed restraints on alternate days based on the odd and even registration numbers. But the proposal has not found political support.

The Maharashtra government has instead given an alternative plan. This includes no new car without off-street parking space, surrender of old car, entry fee for private vehicles in certain parts of the city and improvement in public transport. But there has been no action on the alternative plan.

Odd-even schemes in cities like Mexico, Beijing, Athens, Bogotá and Seoul have led to traffic reduction, but are not foolproof. “As a citizen living in Mexico City this restrain program does not affect us,” said Ivan Islas Cortes of National Institute of Ecology in Mexico City. “My wife and I have a car each. We drive both cars alternatively. People always adapt,” he added.


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