Decongest our cities, or perish

After making the huge and much-needed investments for the Metro and for decongesting roads in the run-up to the Commonwealth games 2010, Delhi has come to a near standstill once again. A new government is, unfortunately, focusing on largely engineering solutions to this vexed problem, knowing well the short-term nature of such options.

Whether it is Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad or any other small city, the challenge of urban congestion is already high and destined to become more severe. Finding sustainable, long-lasting solutions - given a range of problems including dwindling natural resources, air pollution, climate change, urban stress - is an imperative that has to be reflected in central policy as well as city initiatives.

What Delhi does with its privileged access to resources and attention would serve as a model for the rest of the country.

Thorough knowledge and analysis of the demographic and socio-economic profile of a city's population is essential for devising a range of solutions based on urban planning, pricing, demand management, alternate modes of transportation, use of IT-based solutions and so on. Studies on behavioural economics too must be undertaken to ensure a successful outcome-based approach to policy design and interventions.

Get close to workplace

A second policy focus area should be to remove the barriers to relocation of people closer to their workplaces and to provide access to quality infrastructure such as schools and hospitals in each business district. For doing so, the policies would have to reach across domains to address issues of ease of property transactions, uniformity of taxes, security of leasing accommodation, among others.

This would have to be accompanied by a combination of pricing and fiscal measures which would include taxing the use of high congestion routes and private low-occupancy vehicles, heavy and dynamic parking charges, and mandating the purchase of parking slots for owned vehicles as is done in gated communities and high rise apartment complexes. Today, it is common practice to use not just streets as parking slots but any open area, no matter what it may be demarcated for.

Having said that, these fiscal measures would become pure revenue generating activities, with no impact on congestion, unless accompanied by measures that would provide alternative mobility choices. While investments in mass public transport systems will create a 'pull' factor for traffic, properly designed and targeted fiscal incentives would give a much-needed 'push' towards use of public transport - differentiated to attract the maximum spread of users.

Additionally, encouraging the use of intermediate transport systems would not only create the jobs that India desperately needs but also reduce the new demand for ownership of vehicles resulting in a less resource intensive pattern of growth.

Bicycles and public transport

Better urban planning accompanied by a conducive environment for relocation to minimise mobility demand can encourage the use of non-motorised transport, bicycles in particular. For this the clear demarcation of cycle lanes and a clear definition of the rights of users of non-motorised transport is a pre-requisite.

Finally, large organisations - corporates, institutions and government offices - must be given the responsibility of ensuring that their employees are incentivised as required to use public or contract transport systems, or work from home.

The government may consider allowing the offset of some expenditure for fulfilling this responsibility against the CSR budget of such organisations. Such a measure would have to be carefully designed so as to not provide any tax loopholes.

In sum, finding an integrated and lasting solution to the problem of urban decongestion will require a multi-pronged strategy involving a number of State actors.

India is a high density country with a growing urban population and growing aspirations.

City governments would need to put in place an appropriate, effective, responsible institutional mechanism, including law enforcement agencies as an important partner in the effort.