Caravan to disaster

Published: Saturday 31 May 2008

Caravan to disaster

Growth in personal vehicles is unsustainable and the cost of congestion too high

Roads in urban India are creaking under the weight of the growing number of vehiclespersonal vehicles, to be precise. Population growth means more people to buy cars and motorcycles; economic growth means more people can buy; and urbanization means more people will buy vehicles. In short, a crisis is at hand. In the developing world, vehicle ownership is growing much faster than the population. In Delhi, for example, the rate of registration of vehicles per day has doubled between 2000 and 2006.

By 2010, urban Indias population is expected to reach 410 million from 300 million in 2000, which means more cars and motorcycles will be unleashed on the already vehicle-choked roads. Down to Earth The number of cars in Delhi alone has gone up from 0.7 million in 1997 to 1.6 million in 2007. Infrastructure is just not keeping pace with vehicle growth.Between 1996 and 2006, road length in Delhi increased by 20 per cent, while the number of cars increased by 132 per cent.

Congestion is eased temporarily when roads are widened or flyovers built but as more vehicles are added every day, this space is quickly overtaken and the situation is back to square one. In fact, it is getting worse. In 2001, the road length per vehicle in Delhi was 8.5 km. This has come down to 6 km per vehicle in 2007. So the driving space is actually decreasing. This leads to congestion, slow traffic movement and pollution. Indian cities are already facing this reality; congestion is becoming a routine part of life and air pollution is on the rise.

Misplaced priority
The present situation could have been averted had public transport not been neglected. Public transport services have worsened in terms of comfort, frequency and coverage, hence people are switching to private transport. We care only about ourselves and forget about the greater public good. No one cares about marginalized groups such as pedestrians and bus commuters, says Rakesh Mehta, chief secretary, Delhi. Economic growth and liberalization policies have exacerbated this trend by making it easier and cheaper to buy cars.

Taxes are slashed to please car manufacturers and the upper and the middle class. The road tax buses pay every year is more than the one-time road tax cars and two-wheelers pay. This year the government further reduced the excise duty on cars. Cars also get privileges in terms of cheap parking.

Buses, the most efficient mode of transport, did not get priority despite the fact that they transport more people than cars and motorcycles. In Delhi, personal vehicles represent 94 per cent of total vehicles, but meet only 30 per cent of the travel demand. Since buses transport more people, their per person fuel efficiency is better. Cars consume six times more energy than buses, and two-wheelers, 2.5 times the energy. In terms of road space per person too buses have the upper hand. To move the same number of people, cars occupy 38 times the road space than a bus, and two-wheelers occupy 54 times the space. But where is space? Endless increase in road length is impossible.

Vicious cycle
With the ever increasing number of private vehicles, the clamour to deal with congestion has become louder. The traditional response to congestion has been to widen roads, build flyovers and elevated roads. Every Indian city is on a flyover building spree. Under the 9th and 10th Five Year Plans, over a thousand crore rupees were set aside for bridges and flyovers.

It is now recognized world over that more roads and flyovers are not the solution. It leads to a vicious cycle traffic increases leading to congestion, so roads are widened and that in turn encourages more vehicles to be introduced onto the roads. For every 10 per cent increase in road length, a 9 per cent increase in traffic is seen, estimates Sierra Club, an American environmental organization.

Cost of congestion
Small wonder Indian cities never have enough roads. With every additional vehicle, there is more congestion and emissions. Congestion also runs up the fuel bill. A 1997 study by the Petroleum Conservation Research Association, Delhi, showed that idling vehicles in the city wasted 321,432 litres of petrol and 101,312 litres of diesel every day. At current fuel rates, this costs Rs 1.84 crore a day, enough to build the first brt corridor in Delhi in seven months at Rs 20 crore a km. According to the Central Institute of Road Transport, Pune, congestion costs India Rs 3,000-4,000 crore a year. In Bangkok congestion shaves 6 per cent off its economic production.

Traffic jams cost time as well. The 2007 Urban Mobility Report of the Texas Transportation Institute, us, estimates that congestion made urban Americans travel 4.2 billion hours more and spend an extra 11 billion litres of petrol at the cost of us $78 billion in a year. This is more than 100 times the extra aid the World Food Programme has sought to tide over the global food crisis.

Slow moving vehicles pollute more. At 75 km per hour, an automobile emits 6.4 g of carbon monoxide per km. But at 10 km per hour, the peak hour speed in Delhi, a car spews 33 g of carbon monoxide per km. Peak hour speed in Kolkata is 7 km per hour, a bit like slow cycling. Even a 5 per cent reduction in traffic will increase vehicle speed by at least 10 per cent.

The health cost-respiratory and cardiac problems-is immense. The introduction of congestion tax in London in 2003 has improved the health of its people. The tax is levied on private vehicles entering central London during working hours. A study published in the journal, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, this year stated that due to reduced pollution, 1,888 lives are saved each year in London.

There is yet another cost. Road accidents in India cost the country 1 per cent of its gross national product, according to the Central Institute of Road Transport. Cutting these costs, clearly, requires putting a brake on car growth.

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