The mention of Ashram Chowk strikes terror in the heart of Delhi commuters.
Located in the southeast corner of India’s capital, it is a busy intersection of the city’s two major roads—Ring Road and Mathura Road. Few people know it gets its name from a tiny ashram (monastery) in its vicinity. But the intersection is anything but tranquil. With perpetual traffic jams, convoys of smoke-belching trucks, unending construction linked to the Delhi Metro trains and a flyover that had to be shut for repairs only 14 years after it was built, Ashram Chowk represents not only what has gone horribly wrong with Delhi’s traffic but with other cities as well.
Here are five myths about urban Indian traffic—and the five corresponding realities.
Myth 1: Traffic can’t get worse
Reality: The worst is yet to come. Motor vehicle ownership grows slowly at low levels of income, and shoots up at middle income levels ($3,000 to $10,000 per capita), before tapering off at higher incomes, the so-called “saturation” level. For India, the saturation level will be at around 683 vehicles per 1,000 people, versus 807 for China and 853 for the US.
We now have only 117 vehicles per 1,000 people. More worrying, car ownership rates are even lower, at 13 per 1,000 people (two wheelers are 74 per 1,000, the rest is other vehicles). In short, there will be many more motor vehicles on the road—almost six times as many—and more of these are going to be cars. So be prepared for even longer commutes.
As if this weren’t enough, most cars will ply in cities with a million or more residents, not just because of rising incomes but due to urban sprawl. We are urbanising wastefully in terms of land—the built-up area is growing faster than the population in nearly all of the largest 100 Indian cities as they devour their rural fringe. The average density of the 53 million-plus cities declined by 25% from the 1990s to the 2010s, from 40,000 people per square kilometre to 30,000 per sq km.
The capital region in particular has exploded spatially. Its urbanised area is now almost 750 sq km—twice that of Mumbai and Kolkata. One-way commutes of 40-50 km from Noida to Gurgaon are the new normal.
Myth 2: More roads and flyovers will ease congestion
Reality: Our engineers and babus (bureaucrats) think mobility is about moving mainly private vehicles, not about moving people. With regard to moving vehicles too, they ignore better traffic management such as stricter enforcement in favour of big bucks spent on road projects like flyovers and road-widening. After all, that is where money is to be made. Delhi already has one of the world’s highest proportions of road area—a fifth of its total area is given to roads. Its road network is 33,000 km long and the city has nearly 100 flyovers.
Other Indian cities are following suit in building more roads and flyovers. But what good is a three-lane carriageway when one is taken up by parked vehicles and another by vendors and hawkers? No one talks about better traffic management.
Delhi has merely 6,600 traffic cops to manage more than nine million vehicles. They effectively work one shift. It is rare to see a traffic cop on Delhi’s roads at night, except at major entry points, extorting from trucks. The National Crime Records Bureau recently reported that of all the complaints filed against cops in India, more than a fifth were against Delhi police. What is worse, given its VIP culture, a disproportionate number of traffic cops are deployed in Lutyens’ Delhi.
A corollary of this myth is that all Delhi residents have equal access to roads. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a city of cars, by cars and for cars. Half a dozen cars with a dozen people in them hog as much road space as a bus with five dozen people—public transport meets 60% of travel demand, but occupies only 5% of road space. In effect, public money is spent on moving cars in a perverse subsidy.
Myth 3: Parking is our birthright
Reality: “No parking, tyres will be deflated” is a common sign on walls of many properties in Delhi. But wait a minute. This refers to space outside their property, which does not belong to them.
On an average, a car in Delhi is driven only 5% of the time. The rest of the time it is parked—typically on public space. At approximately Rs10,000 per square foot and with each parked car occupying about 60 square feet, this de facto privatisation amounts to robbery of Rs6 lakh. The bigger your car and the more you have, the bigger your heist. In fact, parking outside one’s property anywhere at any time is not an entitlement; it is a commercial transaction. The stupidly low one-time city parking fee of Rs4,000 when people in Delhi buy a new car does not entitle them to land grab.
Myth 4: Metro will solve all problems
Reality: No, it will not. It cannot till we create disincentives for private vehicle owners (see myth 3). The Metro train is an expensive and ineffective solution to Delhi’s traffic congestion.
A kilometre of overground Metro costs about Rs100-150 crore—ten times that of the bus rapid transit system, whereas each kilometre underground is about three times as much. Though it is heavily used and overcrowded, its effect on displacing private vehicles is minimal. In many cases, it has replaced buses as the preferred mode of public transport for Delhi’s working class from far flung areas, such as Rithala, Shahdara and Badarpur.
In Delhi University too, the U-special buses have disappeared and students now use the Metro. Given the urban sprawl, the Metro will forever play catch up with a city that expands like amoeba.
We don’t have anything to learn from the West or East
Reality: No two cities are alike. But Delhi and other Indian cities are unique also in that they are knowledge-proof. While Singapore and London have conclusively shown the efficacy of congestion pricing, Delhi steadfastly refuses to run even a pilot.
In Singapore, the cost of acquiring a car is a multiple of its sale price since one has to buy a certificate of entitlement along with it. Only a fixed number of such certificates are allowed based on road capacity.
While cities the world over have made parking prohibitively expensive to discourage car use, it remains free or ludicrously low in Delhi and in other cities. Indian cities persist with a carrot-and-no-sticks approach, which is doomed to fail. If we do not learn from the mistakes of others or from their best practices, we have only ourselves to blame.