Opinion | The maddening chaos that really need not be

As a walkway tragedy draws urban congestion into the national spotlight, what cities must address first is vehicular traffic. For this, it’s time to give lane-wise road pricing a chance

In urban India, being a pedestrian isperilous. One could swear off jaywalking, never place a toe wrong, but still crash through a road overbridge. After the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus tragedy in Mumbai, a walker could also get scolded for being one among too many using a walkway. What such rants against the multitudes on foot overlook, however, is that the crowds in need of serious reform are mostly on wheels. Little alarm is raised at road fatalities rising year upon year, even as the streets swarm with all kinds of moving objects that have diverse capacities for mobility and differing notions of which direction to move in. If that’s not an ordeal enough, not all this traffic is motorized, nor is it clear who has what right of way. A snarl can be caused by a wayward cow as much as a stalled car, and on occasion, even by a vehicle erupting in flames, a risk borne especially by cabs retrofitted with CNG kits that ride-hailing apps appear to have ignored in setting safety norms. Add the rage of rush hour and the daredevilry of two-wheelers, and resignation to chaos would seem like the only option.

But is it? As the world gets increasingly webbed by airwaves and more closely watched by satellites, new ideas have emerged for the easing of traffic. While global navigation apps have lent it a measure of efficiency by offering clearer pathways and dispersing vehicles around, we still await a system that would address problems peculiar to India. Take lane adherence, the classic way to separate speedy vehicles from slow-movers. One solution could involve pricing the usage of all dense routes—not as a revenue raiser but as anincentive mechanism—and in a manner that road charges vary by the lane a user opts for. Executives in fancy cars (and in a hurry) would likely be willing to pay a premium for faster passage, with this money awarded in real-time to vehicles that stick to slower lanes (and are pleased to get some cash back for being overtaken). In effect, this would form a “market" for deals brokered online by software that tracks chips in licence plates, feeds a computer with live lane data, and engages vehicles via a smartphone app. Levies could also vary from minute to minute in accordance with demand and congestion levels, nudging people to pick cheaper-if-less-convenient routes, as done in cities such as Singapore to decongest streets. Of course, popular acceptance of road pricing as a concept in a country like India would hinge on perceptions of how fair it is. So long as its burden is heavier on the relatively well-off than the rest, it ought to click.

Various models drawn from the same principles could be tested on different arterial avenues in a big city and the most viable given a go-ahead. Meanwhile, the brave companies of the West that plan to put driverless cars on the streets of India would have to be kept in the loop. Ultimately, easing traffic is about laying and broadening roads, no doubt. However, such gravel-and-tar vikaas takes rather too long, new supply tends to get clogged rather too soon, and, even if aided by flyovers, it often achieves little other than shifting traffic jams around the city. We cannot afford to let things drift along like this. It’s time to rethink traffic.