Combating vehicular pollution: Delhi has to learn much more from Beijing

21 Nov 2017

Delhi has been gasping for fresh air for more than a fortnight now, with literally no effective emergency response on ground to arrest the situation. Comparisons have been drawn with Beijing on how much better China has been doing in terms of having a graded response action plan in place. While an effective response action plan will be critical for Delhi, given that there seems to be no assurance that the toxic smog will not return, it will be far more critical to draw an action plan that targets reduction of pollution altogether. And, this is where a comparison with Beijing has been completely missed out.

Beijing and Delhi have very similar population with about 20 million residents. What is however different is the per capita income levels, with Beijing having an average annual per capita income of about USD 16,500 and Delhi USD 4,600. Given the higher levels of income in Beijing, higher car ownership levels would be expected in the city than Delhi.

This is, however, not the case.

Beijing had a car ownership level of about 50 cars per 100 households in 2015 as compared to about 90 in Delhi. What has helped Beijing contain the car ownership levels despite higher income levels is the licence plate lottery system or the vehicle quota system, which restricts the number of cars that can be sold in Beijing annually.

Introduced since 2004, the scheme has not allowed more than 10,000 to 12,500 cars being sold every month. The city, in fact, has pledged to make the scheme even more stringent and will not allow more than 7,500 to 8,000 cars to be registered every month in the next couple of years in order to ensure that the car numbers do not exceed 6.3 million by 2020. Delhi has no restriction on car sales and the number of cars sold every month in the city has continuously risen from about 11,000 in 2011 to about 16,000 in 2016. Unlike Beijing, we haven't even begun any long-term thinking on restricting our private car numbers in the coming years.

Another key difference between Beijing and Delhi is that majority two-wheelers in Beijing run on electricity and hence have zero tail-pipe emissions. The city in 2015 had only four motorcycles per 100 households that run on gasoline, as compared to 180 in Delhi. Two-wheelers in Delhi are the second largest contributor to vehicular PM 2.5 emissions after trucks. Beijing could lower the number of fossil fuel-driven two-wheelers on account of several policies that have banned and made it difficult to purchase them. Instead, the city has promoted e-bikes and e-scooters in a big way.

Beyond private vehicles, the most startling difference between the two cities is the availability of public transport. Beijing has worked over the years to develop a very robust public transport system. It has one of the largest and busiest metro rail networks in the world with a length of about 574 km. Delhi, in comparison, has only about 218 km currently. Average daily ridership on Beijing metro is about 100 lakhs as compared to about 28 lakhs in Delhi.

In the public transport realm, Delhi has been doing abysmally bad in terms of bus transport. Beijing has a total fleet of about 24,000 buses and a ridership of 134 lakhs per day. Delhi, in contrast, has merely a fleet of 4,000 buses, which has actually come down in this decade from 5,500 buses to 4,300 buses. Daily ridership on the DTC bus system has also consequentially fallen from 44 lakhs to 35 lakhs per day. Given the growing population and economic activities in the city, this is the last thing that is expected.

Delhi has also been left far behind in developing cost-effective mass transit systems like the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS). Worldwide, about 165 cities have implemented BRTS as a cost-effective high capacity mass transit system that can be implemented in a much shorter time span as compared to metro rail systems. Beijing has about 75 km of BRTS network with an average daily ridership of about 3 lakh passengers.

In all, Beijing on an average is catering to about 236 lakh trips every day on its public transport systems compared to about 62 lakhs in Delhi. The lesson, therefore, that Delhi needs to learn from Beijing is not just to have a graded response action plan to deal with the severe/worse pollution days, but to think long-term and create an adequate and quality public transport that can reduce the growth and use of private vehicles and can transition them to clean fuels.

A city that is the world's second most populated city and which will, by 2030, be as populated as the world's largest megapolis, Tokyo, needs to do far more to ensure that the growth of the city does not happen at a cost of the environment and quality of life of its residents.


Air pollution
Vehicular pollution
Road transport