Web Exclusive | Where are the roads for India’s vehicles?

Web Exclusive | Where are the roads for India’s vehicles?

New Delhi:Forty going on fifty….that’s the number of new car models in India with more being launched every month. A nagging question that surfaces every time we give ourselves a pat on the back for having such a vibrant auto industry that seems to unfailingly attract every auto major in the world, is “where are the roads to drive those dream machines?"

The result is parking nightmares, frustration leading to road rage, wastage of fuel and high levels of exhaust pollution, with automobiles crawling in low gears through chaotic traffic.

India’s 1.5 million kms of surfaced roads are host to about 40 million 2-wheelers, 10 million cars and some 5 million cars and buses. So there are roughly 38 vehicles on every km of surfaced road that, on an average, is not too bad, but the trouble is that about 80% of the vehicles are found on 20% of the roads, increasing average traffic density on them to roughly 780 vehicles per km and that is very bad indeed.

Also traffic is denser in the fast growing urban areas. To make matters worse, there is a multiplier effect and the congestion increases exponentially when the density of automobiles crosses a certain threshold.

The number of cars per thousand people is only 9.5 in India today as compared to 508 in Germany, 478 in USA, 395 in Japan and 373 in UK. However, this increase in automobiles has been very rapid over the past ten years in cities that had not been originally designed to handle traffic of this magnitude.

The, often tree lined roads are therefore far too narrow, even without the added impact of encroaching shops and roadside shanties. Parking space is hopelessly inadequate in all the older colonies and commercial areas. Many homes have insufficient parking area, ususally spilling out on the roads. Some clusters of Government housing do have garages for scooters that were the rage when they were built some 30 years ago.

Learn from neighbours

China has more land area than India but a lot of it is desert so its 13.3 million cars face a similar problem as India in areas of urban concentration. But there the government can act much more decisively unlike in India where there are always political problems in dealing with slums, encroachments and land acquisition, to say nothing about cattle and animal drawn vehicles. This and other delays caused by protracted litigation make things very difficult.

This makes it almost certain that things are going to get a lot worse before the Government is forced to act. Metros and better buses will certainly help, but will not solve the problem, as experience shows that people in small cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere with good public transport still want private cars.

Despite some advantages, share of railways in the movement of people and goods is declining. The tight budgetary focus of every government agency also means that the bare minimum is spent for improvement, with insufficient concern for future needs, so every new facility will probably be inadequate by the time the project gets completed.

We also remain in a time warp, where people still think that it is only the poor who are our vote banks. Things are however changing rapidly and our planners need to understand that though the poor may be more articulate, there are today nearly 300 million people who use cars, 2-wheelers and buses daily.

They too are voters who will reject poor performing incumbent governments and will vote for those who can be seen to make their daily lives better. We have two India’s. A rapidly growing affluent one that is poor no more and the other that is more frustrated even if their economic situation is slowly improving.

Doable action points that can alter the situation

* Enforce tighter licensing regime so that inept or untrained drivers do not get behind the wheels.

*RTO’s can be linked by computers to ensure that drivers with cancelled licenses cannot get another one at another place. If Pakistan can do it, so can India.

*Immediately amend building rules so that no new residential or commercial buildings can be built without adequate on site’ parking for all the cars that its occupants will use. This is the norm in many cities in Thailand, Australia and other countries.

*There can also be a mild tax on cars that park outside an owner’s house to discourage ownership of multiple cars. In Japan no one can buy a car unless he can produce proof that he has a private place to park it.

*Restrict auto use. Limited access to congested areas, as in central London with fairly expensive entry passes will encourage people to share vehicles. In California, cars with single occupants are only allowed to drive on the slow outer lane.

*Step up private assistance to traffic enforcement authorities. Like the success with private tow away cranes, privatization can be tried in other areas. Private parties can be given the authority to record traffic violations in sections of every city and get a share of fines collected.

*Better traffic management with more traffic cops equipped with cheap digital cameras to easily record traffic violations.

Small steps can sometimes bring in sizeable results and these can be immediately implemented. Ask the drivers on the roads, and you will know that any improvement is better than none at all.

Murad Ali Baig is one of India’s foremost auto experts. Feedback to his column can be sent at livemint@livemint.com