Odd-even scheme: Need complementary measures, robust public transport & public sensitization

Those who believe, research and practice in sustainable mobility have been advocating for Transport Demand Management (TDM) for a long time. The concept of TDM revolves around maximizing efficiency of urban transport systems by encouraging use of public transport, walking and cycling and discouraging use of individual/low occupancy modes like cars. The odd-even vehicle number scheme being proposed in Delhi is just one of the regulatory measures that falls under the domain of TDM concept that can be employed to achieve goals like reduction of traffic congestion and vehicular pollution. There are several other TDM measures - pricing, regulatory, physical, and employment-level measures - that are available as choices to policy makers for meeting the local mobility objectives based on their contextual needs.

I stress on the whole TDM concept in the current scenario to make a point that there are several other measures beyond odd-even scheme that are available for managing the current traffic situation in Delhi. We need to identify the best strategies that could work in Delhi and develop a package of measures for the city. Experience shows that no single TDM strategy has been able to single handedly meet the desired objectives.

You will always need a package of measures. And this brings us to Beijing. We are all talking about Beijing and how successful it has been in implementing the odd-even scheme. Yes, the odd-even scheme introduced during Beijing Olympics was a success, but do we know that it was accompanied with several other key measures that made it a success. Number plate scheme in Beijing was complemented with measures like separated bus lanes and/or bus priority, staggered work hours (including telecommuting and flexible working time system) and government-vehicles prohibition. Studies evaluating the impact of these measures have attributed the success in reduction of traffic during Beijing Olympics to the collective impact of these measures and not any one measure. Lesson being very clear - we need a package of measures if we are serious about success of one principal TDM strategy, which in Delhi's case seem to be the odd-even system at the moment.

Another important thing to learn from Beijing's success is the attention given to public transport and bicycling. After winning the bid to host the 2008 Olympics in 2001, the government established the Beijing Municipal Transportation Committee in 2003, which since 2003 explored and planned for a comprehensive strategy to deal with traffic by 2008. A key pillar of this strategy has been augmentation of public transport and implementation of the public bicycle sharing/bicycle rental scheme. In fact, this is a pre-requisite for success of any package of economic and/or regulatory transport demand measures. Cities which have achieved any amount of success in implementing TDM have all ensured the basic pre-requisite of adequate and quality public transport systems and good infrastructure and operational conditions for non-motorized transport systems.

Beijing has not looked back since 2008. After the success of TDM strategies during Olympics, it has continued with the odd-even scheme but in a much more relaxed form along with the staggered work hours scheme. Additionally Beijing has advanced to more stringent TDM measures. It introduced a significant hike in parking fees in the city center in 2010 and devised heavy fines for illegal parking.

To check the increasing car ownership in the city, which was to some extent a response by the population to avoid the influence of number plate restriction policy, the city government introduced the car purchase restriction policy in 2011 wherein a monthly quota is decided for sales of new cars in order to check the growth and number of cars on roads. Beijing seems to have a long-term strategy and continued effort to address the growing traffic and vehicular pollution, which provides important insights for Delhi.

Delhi needs a comprehensive and long-term action plan for managing the growing travel demand. It's good that its starting with a trial; Beijing also started with a trial. In its first trial in 2006, Beijing had restricted nearly 500,000 cars from plying on roads for six days. The second trial was in 2007 - odd-even scheme and staggered working hours were implemented to test their effectiveness. The trial in Delhi like in Beijing should hopefully lead to a long term travel demand management plan, the basic principle for which has to be promotion of public transport, walking and cycling.

There is no iota of doubt that it will be extremely difficult to achieve success during the 15-day trial in January, given that there has been no sensitization of public on the importance of the intervention. Places where TDM has been successfully implemented like Stockholm have had success after extensive sensitization and community involvement in decisions related to traffic restrictions/pricing.

It is therefore absolutely critical that the Delhi government goes full out till the 31st December to plan and most importantly sensitize the public on the importance of the action, the failure of which could create a sense of disbelief among residents that any policy measure can save the city from increasing traffic and rising pollution.