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Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Odd is Odd and the Even is Even, the Twain shall never meet

Moving into Delhi a few months ago is definitely making me a political animal. Never bothered about things other than education and railways, but with Delhi High Court declaring that we all live in a gas chamber, it is difficult not to comment on the most pressing problem of the day.

So the government comes out with this plan of Odd numbered vehicles running on some days and Even numbered vehicles running on some other days, claiming that it would reduce the number of vehicles on the road by 50 percent. This really shook me. I have always believed that a ten year old is better at making policies than the activists or bureaucrats. He knows how to count.

The initial media coverage mentioned that this would apply to only personal vehicles and not commercial vehicles. The reason for exempting commercial vehicles was obvious. You can tell a person to walk or take a Metro. But you can't tell a taxi driver to go hungry every alternate day. If half the buses can not run, then there is an obvious problem with the scheme. And if commercial vehicles are reduced by half, would we get all the supplies that we need in the city. Lately the media is silent on this, but is pointing out the resolve to include government vehicles in the odd-even system.

If we assume that commercial vehicles will be allowed every day at all times, then would we really have fifty percent less vehicles on the road. Of course, no one has reasonable quality data, but the perceptions are that commercial vehicles make 10-12 trips per day, while the private vehicles make less than 2 trips per day on an average. By curbing private vehicles on 3 days a week, the reduction in traffic would be substantially less than 50 percent. (A ten year old can figure this out. Our activists can not.)

Some people have more than one vehicles. They will now have to remember to take out the right vehicle in the morning. If they aren't careful about the date, they will make the Government richer. Some other will buy new vehicles. In fact, the primary beneficiary of this odd-even game will be Tata Nano. As a second car, this is a great value for money. We are also hearing about exemptions - single women, for example, may be allowed to use the cars of both numbers at all times. Makes it easier for many couples. The husband take the "right" car for the day, while the wife drives the "wrong" car. We are relaxing it in the early morning and late evening. So I can drop my kids to school in the morning every day, but can only pick them up on alternate days. And I am not even talking about the medical emergencies. Of course, I can see that if such a plan is implemented, then people like us, who do use public transport on a lot of occasions, will certainly not use public transport on the days that our car is allowed. It is already bad and just a few percentage more traffic on public transport will make it too bad for us.

So the following is likely to happen:
1. People with multiple cars just take out the right car for the day.
2. People buy another vehicle.
3. Some trips are replaced by taxi trips.
4. Some trips are advanced to early morning, or late evening.
5. Some work gets pushed to Sundays when all vehicles are allowed.

My guess would be that the reduction in traffic due to people shifting to public transport or due to car pooling would be no more than 10-15%, and some of this traffic would have shifted to low pollution vehicle to high pollution vehicle. So the major pollution control comes not from less miles covered by cars, but because of reduced congestion on the road and smooth traffic. (Again, unfortunately, no quality data exists in public domain. It makes it difficult to evaluate the policy options.)

But, as the supporters are arguing - we are in an emergency situation, and we need quick solutions. Can not wait for studies, data collection, and so on. Of course, we don't even need to know the obvious facts. When this was announced, some elated activists pointed out that this was working well in Beijing, our closest foreign competition. (We have good "Made in India" competition - 13 of the 20 most polluted cities of the world are in India. But the foreign craze means that we look for our foreign competitors only.) And it so happened that as I write this blog article, Beijing indeed has enforced the odd-even rule for THREE days. The activists forgot to tell us that this is only an emergency measure that has been enforced only five times in the last 8 years. They also forget to tell us that when such severe restrictions on commuting are put in place, they also close schools, factories, construction sites, and so on. As a result, people who want to go to offices and open their businesses don't find public transport too crowded. And they also forgot to tell us that the public transport system in Beijing is much better than than what Delhi has to offer. And Beijing has much better medical emergency plan (the ambulance will reach you in much smaller time frame than in Delhi).

So go for odd-even. But if the situation is really an emergency situation, please close schools, colleges, factories and construction sites as well. Give every one an incentive to go out of Delhi, the traffic will come down and the pollution will come down.

The activists also don't tell us that a similar program attempted in Mexico City about 10 years ago resulted in no improvement in pollution levels at times when the restrictions were in place, and a significant increase in pollution during the time when the restrictions were not in place. Emergency situations certainly don't need emergency responses which may make situation worse.

We are so concerned about the taxi drivers and want them to continue their jobs every day. But how about a large number of poor people employed as drivers of personal vehicles. I can see two neighbors coming together and telling a driver that he should work for them on alternate dates, and firing the other driver.

Should nothing be done and let everyone catch pollution related diseases. Of course, not. I too agree that it is an emergency situation and we must act. If we really look at the restrictions being considered, the goal is two-fold: The number of kilometers driver by vehicles in a day is likely to reduce and that should cause reduction in pollution. We don't have data but I suspect that this number will not be significant. The bigger savings will come from the fact that even a 10% reduction in vehicles will cause the traffic to be much more smooth. Cars waiting in the traffic are very big polluters. And essentially we need to find ways that we can reduce car driving and we need to find ways that the traffic can be made smoother.

So here are the suggestions:

1. Can we ensure that DTC buses stop in the left most lane only at the stops. Buses stop in the second and sometimes even third lane and this causes huge traffic jams and thus pollution.
2. Can we ensure that autos park near Metro stations in one single file. Stopping and parking of autos haphazardly near places like Metro Stations is another big cause of traffic jams and pollution.
3. Can we have a system than any vehicle parked wrongly will be towed away, heavily fined. Will make the traffic smooth without having to restrict driving.
4. No marriage processions on busy roads. (Preferably, no religious processions either, at least on the emergency days.)
5. Control encroachments on the roads, including by polluting businesses on main roads.
6. Control the number of hawkers in busy areas.

If we can't enforce these, do I really believe that we can enforce odd-even rule?
This itself would reduce vehicular pollution very significantly, without having to restrict driving. And those of you who are old enough to remember Asian Games, 1982 would know that if Delhi Police wants to do all of the above, they can actually do it.

Any way, we also need to reduce the number of kilometers driven by people. So more suggestions:

1. Can we make it somewhat more expensive to drive to shift more people towards public transport. Increase the road tax, registration, driving license charges, pollution tax on diesel and petrol, increase the parking charges and so on. And the extra resources thus generated can be given to Delhi Metro and DTC to buy more coaches and buses. In particular, in my limited stay in Delhi, I find parking charges to be ridiculously low in most places. I understand that the charges are low, since I have an option to park anywhere without the fear of my car being towed away.

2. Can we declare that vehicles who do not follow even Bharat Stage II norms have to be junked. So don't just make plans for introducing Bharat Stage V, VI, etc., but also plan to ensure that vehicles who do not follow even older norms for pollution control are removed from the roads (instead of the blanket age-wise restrictions that have been talked about in the media - remove all 10-year old diesel vehicles, or 15-year old petrol vehicles).

3. Can we declare a few busy roads out of bound for single occupancy vehicle, not the whole of Delhi. If we insist on a minimum of two occupants in some areas, others who are driving alone too can drive to their destinations, but only will have to avoid some roads. So a small time penalty. Of course, rich may circumvent it by hiring drivers - but then increasing employment is always good.

4. Work with Ola and Uder type of operators and not ban them. They have the potential to make it smooth for the commuters. They can be encouraged to push car sharing and car pooling apps, as well as the bus trips. Make such technology based companies your partners in fighting pollution rather than adversaries. I will be happy to leave my car behind on all days if I can get reasonably priced taxi service within a few minutes of my need. So at least the parking on the roads will reduce and traffic will become smooth.

I am only focusing on traffic related things that can be done, since it is in the context of Odd-Even rule. Surely there are other contributors to pollution, and they need to be handled as well.

Of course, I realize that I too am guilty of making suggestions without seeing any data, the same thing that the activists are doing. To ensure that we don't get into an emergency situation again with very little data, we must invest in more monitoring stations, more data collection, which is available to anyone easily, for research.

And, finally this in the lighter vein. We just had 20,000 weddings on 7th, making sure that there are 50-60 lakh people on the road. Can we encourage electronic weddings. The gifts can be ordered on flipkart and delivered on the day of the wedding. The hosts can order food on foodpanda and get them to deliver the food at every guest's home. The couple on the red chairs can have 30 seconds of togetherness with each guest on skype and a photo can be created using photoshop. Just imagine 50 lakh less people on the road, less pollution.

And a business idea for a start-up. Can we have a marketplace for car sharing. I would be happy to lend my car on two of the 15 days that it is allowed to be on the road, and in exchange I want a car on two of the other 15 days that I am not allowed to drive my own car.


Unknown said...

1)I ll also suggest government should make public transport more faster, efficient and comfortable so that rich people also opt for public transport just like metro. Metros can be further increased.
2) Eco friendly vehicles like Electric cars, buses should be promoted.
3) Cycles need to be promoted.
4) People should be encouraged have accommodation near working place so that a lot of movement can be restrained.
5) CM should promote these usecases by first following them rather than making illogical statements and decisions.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Mihir, thanks for your suggestions. I think pollution is one thing on which both Delhi Government and Central Government have convergence of purpose, and both appear very serious to handle this. I believe that the problem is that India has traditionally been very poor at collecting quality data and sharing that widely. And hence scientific decision making is very difficult. Even my suggestions are not based on any data unfortunately. In such a situation, those with louder voice and better connections tend to have unduly large influence on policy making. I wouldn't blame any one in particular for this.

Unknown said...

Respected Sir,

I completely agree that there will not be 50% reduction in the vehicular population on road and I believe that activists also understand that , such a statement has been made out in Public only to gain momentum and make people believe that odd- even rule can work if people cooperate. Also, the odd-even rule is not that bad rule as projected. Clearly, commercial vehicle ban is unthinkable and therefore only private vehicles on roads have to be properly managed to curb the pollution which is risking life of all.
As you said, other countries ,like Beijing had also similar plan and recently it also issued "Red alert" given to extremely high levels to PM. In this alert also, people are asked not to use private vehicles. Previous implementation of odd-even rule have also given significant results with up to 30-40% reduction in Beijing's pollution levels in days of enforced rule.As far as discomfort to people is concerned, I believe everyone can deal with it provided they make their mood positive instead of criticizing nature.Delhi govt. will give every possible help- closing schools for Those days, increasing Metro frequency, More DTC Buses, even launched a new app for Auto/taxi service for service.These are just some of the Initiatives I know about. We Should not rule out Odd-even simply- by not implementing it in the very 1st step. This is , I believe most suitable step given the time constraint and the dangerous levels in which Delhi- NCR is gripped in.

Unknown said...


A very good and insightful article. I believe the Delhi Government should see these suggestions.


renu M said...

A very nice article!! Electronic weddings is an amusing idea! Destination weddings should be encouraged and promoted by the event management companies!
But to make more impact I have a few more suggestions.
Businesses and commercial establishments to close on other days than Sundays with tax incentives! For example they should declare weekly off on different days of the week either based on the type of the businesses or based on areas they operate from! The city can be divided in 3 to 5 major groups of people or zones and each one observes a different day as weekly off!! So all educational hubs can be closed on Saturdays, all govt establishments can be closed on Mondays , all businesses be divided to be closed on the rest of the days!! Also 5 days week made compulsory for all in Delhi!
Taxes should be exempted for people not owning any vehicle or for those using public transport or cycles for commuting!
Monthly quota should be fixed for petrol purchase for each vehicle with an upper limit fixed!
No of cars employed in the caravan of a minister's car should also be reduced!
Online selling and buying can be made tax free to discourage people from going for shopping in person!
Local markets and schools should be made compulsory! Each residential hub must have a school, shopping center and a hospital for emergencies!!
Let's hope things work out as a win win situation for all the stake holders!!