The traffic gridlock in urban India

The chaos on our roads displays a lack of creative transportation solutions


Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

India’s big cities are asphyxiating with traffic congestion that is fast acquiring the contours of a permanent gridlock. The disappearance of the traditional lean hours for traffic, the constant digging up of the streets along with encroachments by hawkers and homes, are all accentuating factors, but at its core, the problem is the sheer number of vehicles that are pouring out on our beleaguered roads, nearly 1,500 in Delhi every day. What’s true of Delhi is equally true of all the metros in India, particularly Bengaluru and Kolkata, where there’s much less road space.

There is a price that is being paid each day not just by the motoring travellers but by pedestrians and even those confined to their homes. In IBM’s Global Commuter Pain Index, which ranked the emotional and economic toll of commuting in 20 international cities, Bengaluru and Delhi were ranked 6th and 7th in terms of commuter pain.

The curious paradox is that the more people suffer on the streets, the more they opt for private cars and short-sighted administrators and governments seek to address this latter need. In his book Rush Hour: How 500 Million Commuters Survive the Daily Journey to Work, author Iain Gately talks of the anonymity cars offer as opposed to the very public glare on trains or buses: “You travel in a bubble and can even take your cuddly toys with you if that makes you happy.” Sadly, this comes with a perverted sense of power that draws on the horsepower of the vehicle and gives rise to the lethal new beast of road rage.

The nub of the problem is vehicle ownership. Hitherto, all efforts at traffic management have been focused on easing the passage of cars on roads and successive governments have tried to achieve this by adding road surface. The problem is you just can’t build your way out of this congestion. The theory of congestion postulated by economists Gilles Duranton and Matthew A. Turner ensures that can never happen because building new roads and widening existing ones leads to additional traffic that continues to rise until peak congestion returns to the previous levels. Wider roads actually incentivize car ownership.

The massive traffic jams in cities such as London and New York have debunked the myth that building more roads and flyovers automatically lowers congestion on the roads. According to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, a study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and traffic monitoring firm Inrix, in the US, delays due to traffic congestion kept travellers stuck in their cars for nearly 7 billion extra hours—42 hours per rush-hour commuter.

Indeed, the induced demand fresh roads engineer means that people are driving more and driving farther. In a paper titled Estimation of Congestion Cost in the City of Kolkata—A Case Study, Aparajita Chakrabartty and Sudakshina Gupta of the Centre for Urban Economic Studies, Department of Economics, University of Calcutta, wrote: “Even though public transport offers a competitive service, its market-share is constantly declining. In fact, there is a transition from public transit-orientated mobility towards private transport one.”

The measures suggested to ease this congestion range from dramatic improvements in the public transportation as well as the traffic management systems to imposing prohibitive congestion charges. Each has its merits and will go some way in reducing the mayhem on the roads. But none of them is a permanent answer to the malaise. For that to happen we need to look for sustainable and creative ways to achieve urban mobility. India’s urbanization ratio is still 32%. What will happen to our roads when it reaches China’s rate of 53%?

Why do people drive? To reach where they live or where they work, or places of entertainment, healthcare or shopping. The more dispersed these are, the more people will need to drive. The answer then lies in self-contained neighbourhoods with most places accessible by walking or cycling. Technology is the other, very obvious solution, though instead of building it into the traffic management system, it needs to be embedded into the vehicles so that the intelligence and the decision-making on the roads is consistent and on not dependent on the moods and vagaries of commuters. There is also an urgent need to curb VIP privileges and indeed make politicians suffer the same consequences of traffic congestion as other citizens do.

Ultimately cities have to turn smart for their own survival and an obvious way of doing that is by letting their residents spend less time on the streets and more on their lives.

Can India ever get rid of its urban mess? Tell us at views@livemint.com

More From Livemint