20 Feb 2015

Solving Our Traffic Woes Quickly

Many Indian cities suffer bad traffic. Solutions cost billions of dollars per city (as with metro systems), take years to implement, and are beset with poor planning.

But there’s an alternative approach that takes little money and is implementable in a short period of time.

To begin with, fossil fuels should be taxed to account for the pollution that occurs when they are burnt. Depending on how impure the fuel is, the tax would be higher, to account for the nitrous oxides and other pollutants in the emissions. For this calculation, we can assume the most efficient engine being sold in India, across all categories of vehicles (such as scooters and cars) and other uses of fuel (like generators). If the most efficient engine emits a certain amount of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and particulates and so on for a liter of fuel, estimate the health and environmental damage caused by them, and add that as tax at the fuel pump. In other words, if a liter of fuel causes a certain amount of damage even when burnt in the most efficient engine, the buyer of that fuel should pay for it in the form of tax.

Beyond that, India should have the highest emissions standards for vehicles across all countries in the world. And the highest for each category of pollutants, like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, particulates, etc. Manufacturers should be allowed to sell vehicles that don’t meet these conditions, but when they do, the estimated health and environmental costs of non-compliance should be taxed.

Beyond that, we need lane restrictions: force all inefficient vehicles into a single lane. What do I mean by inefficient? Any vehicle that goes less than 50 km per liter of petrol (and equivalent for diesel) is inefficient. And this is adjusted by the number of people actually on or in the vehicle. So, a scooter that goes only 30km per liter must use the slow lane when only one person is riding it, but not when there are two. All zero-emission vehicles would count as efficient, as would vans and buses. As I said, there would be only one slow lane, which any vehicle may use. All other lanes will be reserved for efficient vehicles.

Enforcement is critical in India, and that can be done by fines of ₹500 for lane violations. Anybody should be able to report a violation with a photo, and the offender gets fined ₹500, of which ₹100 goes to the reporter. This incentivises everyone to police the road. You can set up a dash-cam, which records video, and when you go home, you go through the video, extract individual photos, and send them to the police to get paid.

This will cause a huge amount of traffic in the slow lane, for which we need a congestion charge. This should be levied at each junction, at a small rate, like ₹10 per vehicle per junction, and only during times when the slow lane is gridlocked.

Once this is in effect, if the traffic is still anything but perfect, by which I mean that rush hour traffic is noticeably slower than traffic at 3AM, a lane can be dedicated to buses. If even that’s not enough, perhaps a lane for double-decker buses, which can carry a lot of people while occupying little space on the road.

Let private parties run public bus service. How does it matter who runs the bus, as long as the bus does its job of displacing many vehicles?

This should fix the nightmarish traffic conditions in many Indian cities, reduce pollution and health and environmental damage, and incentivise people to buy efficient vehicles. And put more money in public transport, which helps everyone rather than only people with enough money to buy a vehicle of their own. And all this without spending billions of dollars per city and waiting for years for metro and road systems to be developed. This is a cheap, and relatively easy and quick, solution to the problem.

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