Navigating the maddening rush-hour traffic is the biggest source of frustration for any city resident. The cumulative impact of productivity and output loss due to traffic snarls is a substantial proportion of our economy.
The explosive growth of vehicle population, far in excess of road network expansion, poses formidable challenges for urban traffic managers. The standard bureaucratic solution to resolving this challenge is to widen roads and build flyovers. This is understandable, since it is populist, easier to implement, and generates immediate relief, at least for the moment. Such investments are nonetheless necessary, as they help realize the full possible extent of road carriageway. However, on a longer-term perspective, such measures only serve to kick the can down the road.
Any sustainable long-term solution to traffic management has to go beyond mere convention. It requires demand-side measures that encourages public transport usage, discourages private vehicles, and enables human beings to make rational decisions about their travel plans and road usage. Only an appropriate mixture of these three interventions can make a reasonable dent on traffic problems.
The first requires massive investments in public transit systems and their careful integration with all other modes of transport, public and private. It is as much an exercise in urban planning as transport management. In light of experience from across the globe, it is clear that such investments are capital-intensive and have to be heavily subsidized. Critically, a good public transit system is a prerequisite for the success of all other demand-side interventions.
Across the world, a number of countries have experimented with initiatives to discourage the use of private vehicles. They include measures to make vehicle ownership and its usage expensive. For more than two decades, Singapore has a policy that mandates that all vehicle owners have a certificate of entitlement (CoE) permit. The permits are to be purchased by vehicle owners in periodic auctions. The numbers of permits issued are restricted so as to maintain only a certain level of vehicle growth. The resultant high CoE permit auction rates act as a prohibitive tax on vehicle ownership.
Similarly, in China, faced with exploding vehicle population, Shanghai has for several years now been conducting monthly “licence plate auctions”. In a reflection of the growing demand for vehicles, bid rates have averaged a record 46,000 yuan ($6,900) in recent times. Buoyed by Shanghai’s success, Beijing recently adopted a lottery system to issue car licence plates. It outpaces even Shanghai and restricts new registrations to only those who have paid tax and social insurance in the city for more than five years.
Singapore, London, and a few other European cities have sought to levy congestion charges in certain high traffic density areas to disincentivize vehicle usage there at certain times. Many Chinese cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hangzhou are now toying with congestion charges. Cars licensed in other parts of China are now forbidden from driving during peak hours in Beijing’s main urban area.
Policies that seek to internalize parking charges are another approach to limit vehicle usage, at least in certain areas and at certain times. Cities such as London, Hong Kong, and New York, with their heavy parking fees, impose a huge premium on private vehicle usage. Some Chinese cities are even considering forcing citizens to own a parking space before they can buy a car. Some Latin American cities have policies that ban vehicles with odd and even- number plates off the road on designated weekdays. Carpooling has for long been a favourite in many parts of the US and is catching up in many cities across developing world.
Finally, it is important to provide people with information about traffic conditions in the most readily usable manner—say, on their mobile phones. This will enable them to make rational decisions on effective road utilization. In many respects, road traffic has striking similarities to a free market. Consumers base their decisions to purchase goods and services based on price, quality, and some other parameters. Similarly, people make travel plan, route and vehicle usage choices on certain constraints—parking charges, vehicle ownership and usage costs, traffic intensity at the time etc.
Like in the free market, it is possible to generate more efficient traffic outcomes, if people are provided with traffic-related information in an appropriate manner. This does not mean flooding people with all available information, but channelling it in a cognitively salient and easy-to-use manner. This makes it easier for people to make choices that would optimize on their travel times and, therefore, improve traffic management. Intelligent traffic management systems, that integrate real-time information from multiple sources, can be very effective in the efficient rendering of such information.
All these initiatives have the potential to conflict with both the politically correct policy of promoting vehicle ownership and the interests of the automobile industry. In this context, our urban transport planners could do well to learn from the far-sighted nature of the Chinese initiatives. These measures are estimated to restrict registrations to just 240,000 additional vehicles in 2011, one-third of the current annual level, and are estimated to take 10 million potential buyers out of the market in the years ahead.
Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are his personal views.
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