That India’s big cities are choking on traffic is well known. But just how bad is the problem? A Mint study, reported in “Plain Facts" on Monday, examined vehicular traffic speeds along 300 arterial roads in the country’s top six metropolitan regions. On average, it takes 39 minutes to cover a 10km stretch in Kolkata, 37 minutes in Mumbai, and 34 minutes in Bengaluru; vehicles in Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad fare better, but not by much. Expansion of road networks is what many of us clamour for, but space is scarce while demand for road usage is both high and rising rapidly. To decongest our most crowded cities, thus, we need to look at solutions that serve to moderate demand, rather than wait for mega road projects to materialize. A vast highway system off the coast of Mumbai with feeder links to the city, for example, would be welcome, but is not on the horizon yet.
Traffic reduction might be the best we can hope for in the near term. But is there a good way to achieve this? Some of the options tossed around entail enforcing radical policies. One idea would be to ration car ownership per family. This will not only be difficult to implement, considering the varied sizes of families and ease of getting around a quota, it would be an affront to the principle of individual choice. Likewise, a limit on the total number of cars allowed in a city would be too harsh a measure, besides being unfair to have-nots who aspire to car ownership. Another suggestion is an odd-even scheme, which would permit half the vehicles to ply the streets on alternate days, depending on the last digit of their registration numbers. Delhi tried this once for pollution control, pushing people to take public transport instead, but the idea received flak for arbitrarily disabling half the city’s motorists and causing widespread inconvenience.
Proposals that involve outright restrictions on people’s choices go against the principles of a free market democracy. No policy should bar anyone from driving down a street, nor should it hurt the auto industry. Thankfully, a market-based solution exists too, one that uses price incentives to regulate demand for road usage. Technology today can track vehicles in motion and charge them automatically for using arterial roads, with the fees rising and falling as traffic density goes up and down. Bills can be sent to mobile phones. Those who would rather not pay could take other routes or travel during off-peak hours. Universal compliance may be hard to obtain, but in theory even fast and slow traffic could be separated this way—with premium prices for express lanes. While countries like Singapore already have such systems, Indian authorities may worry about a public backlash. Vehicle buyers pay a road tax to begin with, after all, and road pricing sounds too elitist an idea. Yet, as Indian thoroughfares get increasingly clogged, something needs to be done. And, the fairest way to address rising demand for public infrastructure is to start charging for it. Variable pricing could be modelled on progressive taxes: Luxury cars could be charged higher, while vehicles that are usually owned by people of modest means could go free. If it’s done without disruption and saves people precious time, millions would be grateful.