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Fixing Delhi’s Demonic Traffic

Updated: July 24, 2010 1:50 pm

The Commonwealth Games is just a few months away and the transportation system in Delhi is in a big mess-whether it is the metro rail system or the public-sector bus system. Planners blame these problems on population growth and unlicensed private transportation. The blame, however, should be placed on the planners themselves. Restricting the entry of vehicles is not the solution. Entry barriers should be eliminated and traffic police should be privatised. My article titled “Fixing Delhi’s Demonic Traffic” was published in The Wall Street Journal on July 1, 2010.

            The Commonwealth Games in New Delhi are just four months away, and residents of India’s capital city are bracing for more traffic nightmares as players and guests from over 40 countries pour into town. The city already contends with crumbling public transportation and mind-numbing traffic jams. National and state governments have opened their wallets to meet the exponentially growing costs, arguing the spending will help realise the capital’s long-term infrastructure needs.

            This is the triumph of hope over experience, especially when it comes to the wisdom of the government’s urban planners. Take Delhi’s metro rail system, built over the past five years with the help of Japanese contractors. It is one of the rare projects that is being completed mostly on time and within budget. Yet on the day a new section opens, demand always exceeds the metro’s capacity, because of perpetual shortfall in coaches. Many admiring users have given up and resumed use of their own vehicles.

            The public-sector bus system isn’t much better. Delhi Transport Corp a reportedly makes more money idling buses than when it runs them. It is now acquiring a glittering fleet of modern vehicles, but the process has been slow, and no-one knows how the fleet will be maintained. Privately licensed operators are mostly in the hands of small-time mafia bosses. Those buses make headlines more for their accidents and fatality rates than their service.

            Then there are examples from the theater of the absurd. Take, for instance, a one-way flyover on a busy route that connects one of the highways to the international airport was recently inaugurated. Its opening led to such chaos that the authorities had to reverse the direction of traffic with the explanation that the traffic pattern on that stretch of road had changed drastically in the two years the flyover was under construction.

            This is by no means an isolated

incident. Two years ago, a 20-kilometer stretch of highway connecting Delhi to Gurgaon, the fastest growing suburb to the south of the city, was expanded to eight lanes and opened with a 32-gate toll plaza. The day the road was inaugurated, the traffic flow exceeded the projection for 2014. Today, on a typical working day, it takes more time to queue and pay the toll than to drive through that stretch of highway.

            Urban planners brush off these problems by blaming unrestrained population growth and an explosion in unlicensed private transportation. They focus on limiting the supply of vehicles. In a city of 15 million, there are about 10,000 permitted taxis, 50,000 three-wheeled automobiles and a few thousand cycle-rickshaws. Unofficially, there are around 38,000 taxis, 75,000 three-wheelers and 1,00,000 rickshaws, thanks to the high costs of running legal transportation. The vehicle density is around 10 per 100 people, which is high when compared to the rest of India, at one per 100 people.

            But congestion on the road is not just a function of the number of vehicles, but also of the quality and amount of road space and the efficiency of road use. Delhi’s streets are no more congested than any of the main streets in small towns across the country.

            This misguided focus on the number of vehicles has meant that every transportation policy seeks to restrict the entry of vehicles. Consequently, the supply of transportation falls chronically short of demand. There are layers of licenses and permits regulating the operation of private buses, taxis and automobiles, which apart from breeding inevitable corruption, perpetually restricts supply. What’s more, taxes on gasoline, and vehicles are among the highest in the world, all aimed at reducing personal forms of transport. This has retarded the technological innovation and added

to pollution and congestion.

            So citizens turn to the private sector. Many Delhi residents have to bargain regularly for the fare with cab or auto drivers, bus conductors and other informal service providers. Thousands of vehicles ply Delhi each day, without authorisation, to meet the demand, while contributing millions of rupees to the kitty of road transport officials and the traffic police, whom they have to pay to be allowed to operate.

            There has been one small step in the right direction: A few months ago, the Delhi High Court, in a landmark judgment, nullified the license raj that had hobbled the cycle-rickshaw industry in the city. The vehicle, a human-powered bike attached to a wheeled chair, is a low-cost investment, providing employment to tens of thousands, and an accessible mode of transport for relatively short distances. By licensing its numbers to absurdly low levels, municipality officials, traffic police and the rickshaw mafia ruled the streets, depriving citizens of an affordable means of transport, and denying an honest, albeit hard, day’s work to the riders.

            The decision to liberalise the cycle-rickshaw trade should now be extended to all forms of public transportation. Even better, Delhi’s authorities could ditch the idea of regulating tariffs for licenses altogether. Entry barriers should be eliminated, if not drastically reduced. The government could also privatise the traffic police, who are rewarded now for their numbers of bookings, rather than the quality of their work.

            These moves would have several advantages. First, they would legalise existing informal service providers. Second, they would allow more organised operators to benefit from scale of operations. This may incentivise many individual operators to merge and compete for clients on the basis of price and quality of service. Third, they would improve the policing of the system, too.

            These suggestions aren’t as radical as they may seem. With the advent of private radio taxis two years ago, there has been a perceptible improvement in the service of many small and informal taxi operators. In fact, the 2,500-odd such taxis currently operating in Delhi have led to a driver shortage, providing a new economic opportunity to many aspiring workers.

            The Commonwealth Games are the biggest event India has hosted in years. Rather than asking people to stay at home during the celebrations, or forcing those who can afford to leave town to do so, simple changes in traffic and transportation rules could help improve the quality of life for all of Delhi’s residents. Now that would be a game worth playing for!

By Barun S Mitra

The writer is director of the Liberty Institute in New Delhi and a columnist for

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