Was Delhi's car-rationing trial a publicity gimmick?

An Indian woman crosses a road as vehicles move through morning smog on the last day of a two-week experiment to reduce the number of cars to fight pollution in New Delhi, India, Friday, Jan. 15, 2016 Image copyright AP
Image caption The jury is still out on whether the trial had any impact on Delhi's toxic air

Sorry I am late, the traffic is back with a vengeance in Delhi.

No prizes for guessing why. The capital's much-hyped two-week trial - private cars with even and odd number plates were only allowed on alternate days - to curb air pollution ended on Friday. The headlines over the weekend said it all: Traffic in Delhi back to square one, moaned one.

The whinge is not without basis.

Despite many exemptions, the drive, say officials, took more than 100,000 cars off the roads every day, six days a week. That's a lot of vehicles, and so not surprisingly, traffic eased and commuting time - and road rage - shrank.

One report said peak hour traffic was down by a third. More than 9,000 drivers were fined $29 (£20) each for driving a wrong numbered car - a not very substantial number considering the volume of traffic.

People carpooled and public transport, including the efficient metro, managed to soak up many commuters who had given up cars. A high decibel campaign by the local government meant that air pollution becoming a talking point among the city's generally apathetic citizenry. Despite reports of some volunteers being harassed by churlish law-breakers, the experiment was widely described as a success.

Now the not-so-good news. By all accounts, the jury is still out on whether the trial had any impact on the city's toxic air.

Many studies show there is scant data to support the government's claim that the experiment improved air quality.

To be sure, tricky weather conditions - low wind speeds did not help in clearing pollutants, for example - were possibly responsible for actual deterioration of air quality during the trial period.

Confusion

It is not even clear, despite some cavalier opinion, whether cars are mainly responsible for the spiralling air pollution - car journeys comprise fewer than 15% of trips in Delhi, less than half the number in London or Singapore.

The tens of thousands of diesel trucks that enter Delhi every day, along with smoke-spewing coal-fired power stations, construction dust, and mass burning of rubbish to keep the homeless warm also contribute handsomely to keep the air foul.

Yet, nobody believes cars are not a problem. Sunita Narain of Delhi's Centre for Science and Environment fervently believes cars - especially the diesel-engine ones which are legally allowed to emit more - are an "important part of the pollution story", and the car rationing experiment actually helped moderate air pollution.

An unprecedented scaling up of public transport is the only "long-term solution" to clean up the city's odious air, she says.

Image copyright AP

Buoyed by the hoopla over the drive, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has announced that an "improved version" of the car rationing scheme will be announced soon. But does the "success" of the trial tell us anything about a behavioural change - read calm compliance - among the car-loving residents of Delhi?

Possibly not, says India's best-known transportation expert Dinesh Mohan.

Keep in mind, he says, that all schools were closed during the drive, thus removing a quarter of the daily trips; many used their old motorcycles for the alternate day; others may have printed fake natural gas stickers - cars running on natural gas were exempt from the trial - or bought false registration plates. Most importantly, all car owners knew in advance that the trial would last only two weeks.

'Isolated intervention'

"The experiment tells us nothing about how people would react if it was a permanent measure. My suspicion is that if everyone knew this is here to stay, they would not only buy cheap vehicles and become more inventive but also much more angry," he told a newspaper.

"It is quite clear that the odd-even experiment has not had a major influence on the overall environment in the city. Therefore, it only serves as a publicity gimmick. There is no city in the world where such a measure has worked over any length of time, nor has it reduced pollution significantly as an isolated intervention, says Dr Mohan.

Surely car use in Delhi needs to be minimised. Parking must cost more, engine-size based pollution tax should be imposed to fund public transport, and the city must be made friendlier for pedestrians and cyclists. Environment groups claim a tax on diesel trucks entering Delhi has already led to a 20% reduction of truck traffic. The government's decision to upgrade to higher fuel standards for vehicles - Euro VI - by 2020 should also be welcomed.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Delhi's efficient metro picked up a lot of commuters who left their cars at home
Image copyright AP
Image caption Tens of thousands of diesel trucks enter Delhi every day

Still this will be not enough.

Air pollution is a fiendishly complicated subject - and has to do with much more than vehicular emissions.

At its heart, it is mainly a symptom of shambolic urban planning and the inability of the government to deliver basic and essential services to its people.

As Sarath Guttikunda, who heads independent research group UrbanEmissions.Info, says, lack of power supply leads to use of diesel generators, lack of public transport leads to higher demand for private vehicles, and the lack of uncluttered and clean pavements and cycle paths lead to more motorised transport.

Bad traffic management and on-road parking leads to more congestion. Rubbish gets burnt because it simply doesn't get picked up in the first place. Builders are not even pushed to use water tankers to check construction dust. Introducing natural gas, upgrading fuel standards, and pushing out polluting industries will fetch short-term gains - Delhi is living proof of this.

Delhi - and India - needs institutional change to fight air pollution. Neither Mr Kejriwal, who rules Delhi, nor Narendra Modi, who rules India, have shown much appetite for such reform.