Extended Odd-Even will bring perverse behavioural changes. Consider other methods

There is no debate about Delhi's air quality, it is severely injurious to human health, more so in the winter, owing to adverse meteorology. Source apportionment studies, which reveal how much of each component of air pollution comes from which category of polluters, have shown significant, but not dominant contribution from vehicles. Another concern of citizens is the extreme level of congestion on roads, because over the past 20 years, the number of registered vehicles in the NCR has increased by 15% each year.

The odd-even rule implemented in Delhi, first in January and now in April is intended to combat air pollution. Then as now, various exemptions have been given. Various agencies analysed the impact after the first phase and concluded that traffic congestion was reduced, but reduction in air pollution was limited. It was also observed that citizens, as well as various agencies, made efforts to identify potential users, and provide car-pooling services. Several offices explored options such as 'work-from-home'. On the other hand, neighbours exchanged cars with odd and even numbers.

While the efforts at pooling are welcome, it is likely that if the odd-even rule is applied on an extended basis, say throughout the year, there may be perverse behavioral changes, beyond neighbours exchanging cars. More disturbingly, people may buy second and third cars to game the rule, and many of these may be older, more polluting vehicles, which are cheaper, thereby worsening air pollution.

The question arises, if there are better mechanisms which have worked in other countries that may promote favourable behavioral responses from citizens, and provide disincentives to perverse behavior, thereby better realising the objectives of the odd-even rule.

One alternative that has been discussed, is insisting that on major roads, cars carry a minimum of three or four passengers, may be or may not be feasible. Recently, Jakarta gave up this approach, because 'jockeys'—unemployed persons with time to spare—accepted rides from car owners on payment, to defeat the rule. Given the large numbers of unemployed youth in the NCR, this approach may not work.

However, there is a possibility that car owners may instead, offer rides to genuine passengers whom they know personally (or whose backgrounds they can verify), who would otherwise have queued for buses or metro trains. Given the cultural differences between Jakarta and Delhi—people in Delhi may be more wary of strangers offering themselves as passengers—it is impossible to say a-priori whether this would work, and the only way is to use it on a trial basis.

Another approach that has worked elsewhere is congestion pricing. This approach would require vehicle owners wishing to enter notified congested zones to purchase a permit at a fee that is sufficiently high as to deter entry by most. Congestion pricing is in effect in a number of cities including Singapore, London, Stockholm, etc. It is consistent with economic principles for attaining efficiency, but could be considered iniquitous, since the rich would obviously be better placed to buy permits. The equity concerns may be taken care by earmarking the revenues from congestion pricing for providing mass transport options in these zones as a public responsibility, but which may also be provided in PPP modes.

Several types of congestion pricing schemes may be developed including: congestion pricing all across the city, identification of low emission zones for application of congestion pricing, road-wise congestion pricing, emissions linked—permits priced according to pollution status of the vehicles, or road space linked (permits priced as per vehicle size) congestion pricing, etc. Till such time as automated vehicle monitoring, linked to a computer data base of cars that have permits can be adopted, permits could be sold on the internet, and stickers printed out.

At present, there exist several regulatory and policy impediments that prevent appropriate behavior changes by citizens, and provision of commuting services other than by public buses and metros. Providers of commuting services outside public agencies would be better able to garner information on travel demands, which cover origin-destination points by time of day and day of week, comfort levels desired, willingness-to-pay, profile of fellow passengers, etc. It is important that regulatory restrictions that impede provision of commuting services that are flexible in these dimensions are identified and removed.

Air pollution and road congestion comprise a set of complex policy questions. Solutions require changes in behavior, technology, and policies. It is also unlikely that a single magic bullet exists for such issues, nor does one size fit all. It is to be welcomed that the Government of Delhi has embarked on a policy experiment with the odd-even rule. Other options too need to be tried out, singly and in conjunction. Policies that raise revenues are generally to be preferred because the resources gained may be used to enhance public infrastructure, including monitoring and enforcement.