Kushan Mitra

The Chinese President’s visit to New Delhi might have fallen short of tangible benefits, but it did bestow the capital with the mother of all traffic jams. Commuters who usually take an already long 90-100 minutes were taking 150-200 minutes. The amount of man-days lost just due to jams caused by this particular blockade of arterial roads in the name of security was in thousands.
Similarly, the pollution created and fuel needlessly burnt must have also been quite high. Once the data is available, it would be fairly easy to calculate the hidden cost of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the capital of India. A cost that was borne by the residents of the National Capital Region.
But it is unfair to blame the authorities or the visit of a foreign leader for this traffic fiasco. The fact is that, traffic chaos today is a reality for the urban in Delhi. And not just in Delhi, every major city in India is choking to death with clogged roads, due to the extremely selfish attitude of Indian drivers, who drive on the wrong side of the road and park their vehicles wherever they feel like.
The new Motor Vehicles Act proposed by the Government, which will be presented in Parliament during the Winter Session, will be a major step forward. In no small part, due to mandating certain safety norms, although it does not go far enough in the promotion of active safety features such as anti-lock brakes, airbags and electronic stability on cars. But the new act also proposes huge increase in fines for traffic violations.
However, without the strict implementation of fines for violating traffic rules, there will be little or no change in the attitude of Indians towards barring others and causing traffic jams.
Take the case of battery-operated rickshaws. This is a good idea, as it offers clean, green last-mile transport solution, however they were let loose on Delhi roads with no planning whatsoever, causing chaos. In an abashed attempt to grab votes, several political parties would rather keep rules diluted for these vehicles, instead of keeping road users whether they are pedestrians or car drivers, let alone those who travel in rickety battery rickshaws safe.
The man-hour lost to traffic chaos is, as mentioned above, not just restricted to Delhi. Commute times in Mumbai are sky-rocketing, while new roads and flyovers are being built, they have only succeeded in moving the traffic bottlenecks rather than providing a solution. The same is the case in Bangalore and Chennai.
For the new government, growth has been a priority and it should be. High level of economic growth is the only way to provide employment to India’s growing army of unemployed youth. However, much of this growth is to come in the service and retail sector, this would mean that a bulk of India’s growth will need to come from urban centres. This will also mean that there will be greater economic migration into cities, stretching their infrastructure to breaking point.
The government in its manifesto has promised to build a hundred new smart cities, and this paper had recently noted how several States are jostling to get included in the list. The development or re-development of these cities will have to include methods of alleviating traffic problems that will undoubtedly result to increase in growth.
The fact of the matter is that motor vehicles remain not just an aspiration for young Indians, but a necessity due to the non-viability of public transport solutions. Maybe in Delhi, things might improve in 2015 as the third and the largest phase of the Delhi metro comes on-stream with nearly a hundred kilometers of new lines. But in several other cities in India where metro construction was announced earlier, the projects remain woefully behind the scheduled time.
It will be impossible for the government to dissuade ‘aspirational’ car buyers, and India’s per capital vehicle ownership levels are among the lowest in a large country. Despite heavy taxation on both domestically produced vehicles and imported vehicles, sales of two-wheelers and cars have been growing. However, better planned public transportation along with strictly enforced parking rules might make people use their car frequently.
Technology too can play a critical role here, and across the world the automotive industry is realising that traffic congestion will possibly play a role in stalling sales growth.
One way in which technology is helping, is through instant taxi service applications on smartphones, which provide quick and efficient local transport and remove the need to buy a car.
In the United States, services like ZipCar are providing instant rentals for the time one has to reach destinations not served by public transport. There are also applications which have allowed for easier carpooling applications with an incentive for the driver of the vehicle as well.
Technology will definitely play a role in traffic management for cities in the future, particularly as the number of people with smartphones in cities grows. Even in India, with the availability of modern smartphones such as the Android, one platform for just over Rs 6,000, applications will play a role on getting people out of using cars for personal transport.
That does not mean that there should be a slowdown in the pace with which the public transportation solutions have to be built.
For almost three-quarters of a century, most Indians cities have grown haphazardly with no concern towards building public transportation. In essence, this unplanned growth has made the average Indian urban dweller’s reliance on motorised personal transport more acute.
Therefore, when, for security reasons a road has to be shut, or when misguided politicians block roads to agitate, entire cities suffer. A city is like a living being – if the human body suffers a blockage in a major blood vessel, it suffers; if it has blockages in three or four major blood vessels it will either die or have permanent damage. Traffic is killing our cities, and we cannot lie back and pretend that business as usual can continue.
Yes, the government has to fix things, but it is also the duty of every citizen who drives, to become less selfish and follow traffic rules.