Are There Better Alternatives To The Odd-Even Rule?
Delhi was the most polluted city in the world by the World Health Organization (WHO) until recently. While we tend to assume that modernity and vehicles are a major source of pollution, but it is not completely true. Delhi, last month followed the Odd-Even rule, which was first put to practice in January this year. Under this rule, the odd and even license plate numbers should ply on the road on odd and even dates, respectively. This rule was implemented to draw attention to two important problems that the national capital faces at present—road congestion and air pollution.
While pollution is the single biggest cause of death, road congestion, on the other hand, makes cities poor. Road congestion negates the advantages of living in a city, though most people do not know this.
The odd-even rule does not seem to be quite effective in curbing pollution. This did not occur to many of its supporters in the first round of road space rationing. But, in the second round, this was hard to ignore, even to people who were ideologically committed to it. According to IndiaSpends, a data journalism alternative, pollution levels in the second half of April were 23 per cent higher than in the first half. If this is true, there is much more to pollution than the number of vehicles on roads.
This fits in well with a pattern observed throughout the world, though for different reasons. Odd-even road space rationing seems to work for a while, but after a point, people find ways to get around it. People find it difficult to believe that car owners will buy more vehicles to circumvent the rules of the land. But, this has happened everywhere. Cities like Delhi also have large numbers of potential car owners. Even the supporters of the odd-even rule do not think that this is a reasonable, long-term measure. If this cannot be a long-term measure, what could be the solution?
- One way to cure pollution is to charge people for carbon emissions. Let us suppose that carbon emissions over a million tonnes a month is not reasonable. The government can charge people for emitting more, setting limits for individuals and firms. Of course, people may decide to pay more and pollute more, but this would mean that in certain situations, a higher level of pollution is ideal. Very few, for example, will prefer to live in a world without automobiles, even if it is an unpolluted world. The technology required to charge people for emissions exist, but it is very expensive, and is not likely to be implemented in India anytime soon. Over years, cars have started polluting less because of improvement in technology. Modern day cars pollute less than cars in the 1970s. This is partly why developed countries have cleaner cities despite having much higher levels of car ownership. Many transport planners think that electric engines in cars and other vehicles may even solve the problem. But, even if this happens, we may need a carbon tax to deal with other problems.
- The other alternative is to charge people for driving through roads. This is important, because roads are real estate like office buildings, restaurants and retail stores are real estate. When restaurants and stores charge people for their services, they include the cost of real estate too. Rents form a significant fraction of the costs of running a business. But, roads operate very differently. Anyone is free to drive through the roads, so long as someone is willing to endure the smoke, and wait in the traffic. Allowing people to drive through roads for free is somewhat like allowing central city land to be used by anyone for free. This is not realistic. Cities like Singapore and London have implemented congestion pricing, by charging people for driving through streets. This has led to virtually uncongested streets in Singapore. In London, this has lowered road congestion and pollution significantly in a short period of time. There is no good reason why Indian cities cannot do this, too. Central city land in India is very expensive, and Indian cities are very dense. When virtually everyone in Delhi owns a car, driving through roads may not even be an option, because roads would be too clogged. It is true that we can build more roads, and allow private entrepreneurs to build roads. But, public roads will still remain a scarce resource. Moreover, when more roads are built, this does not lower pollution because the number of vehicles on roads go up.
- Cities like Delhi also need wider mass transport networks, though it is not necessary that they are owned by the government. As the Delhi Metro lowers the pollution in Delhi by 6,30,000 tonnes every year, this is very important. If private corporations are allowed to build metro lines, and provide other forms of mass transit, this would lead to a great revolution. Today, Metro stations and Metro trains in Delhi are crowded during peak hours, and in prime areas of the city. If there is more private participation, supply will rise according to the demand, lowering overcrowding inside the Metro. Congestion on roads matter. But, congestion inside Metro trains and buses matter, too.