Wednesday 13 March 2013

India's Ministry of Urban Development promoting congestion charging

The New Indian Express reports that the Ministry of Urban Development Secretary, Sudhir Khrishna (who is a professional civil servant, not a politician, for the sake of clarity), has written a letter to Chief Secretaries of State in the country calling on them to consider introducing congestion charging in cities.

The letter urges a range of TDM approaches, including promoting public transport, cycling and walking (the latter two are far too often neglected in cities), but that resolving congestion can be difficult and needs to involve managing excessive use of private vehicles, specifically recommending cities consider what has been done in Singapore and London.

The article suggests that the original Singapore Area Licensing Scheme, which involved vehicles having paper permits pre-purchased and manually inspected for access into city centres, may have particular potential.

Positively, he seems to be promoting congestion charging as a simple economic concept, whereby those who value a scarce resource the most pay to use it.

India has many toll roads, but has a major problem before it can introduce congestion charging

Tolling isn't new to India, but it is focused on new expressway corridors between cities.  However, they have suffered because tolling is done manually, creating bottlenecks of their own at manual toll booths.   Indeed, India has a whole host of problems around incentives in its PPP toll road programme, which seems to be ripe for some more fundamental reforms, and is a victim of private concessionaires seeking to transfer risk to public entities ill equipped to manage them.

The fundamental problem being the difficulties of enforcing any form of road pricing in India based on tracing violators through number plates.

Without some concerted efforts at federal or state levels to address standardisation of number plates, reliable ownership data and systems for maintaining the accuracy of that data (and facilitating effective debt collection), India can't seriously introduce congestion pricing as is seen elsewhere.

It can and should price and enforce parking appropriately in the interim, as this is a far cheaper and obvious first step.  It can consider a paper based permit system, enforced through parking or at traffic signals, but that has its own limitations.

Moreover, if one of the problems is a lack of decent arterial routes to bypass built up areas, then those routes need to be completed as well.   It is the usual list of issues that cities that are rapidly developing need to address, but a focus on what needs to be done to facilitate congestion charging may help catalyse a look at that. 

Focus needs to be on vehicle identification and enforcement

Brazil is taking an ambitious path, by essentially making DSRC tags mandatory on all vehicles by 2014, which is one way of identifying vehicles and linking them to accounts.  India might do the same, or could simply choose to reform its vehicle registration and number plate system.   All of this requires a lot of effort and cost, but does need to be managed professionally and independently, and backed up by the powers to enforce a standard process on vehicle owners, buyers and sellers.  

Failing to do that will mean calls to introducing congestion charging will be just that.  For unless an electronic system can easily identify, trace and charge or fine a vehicle by itself, and do so accurately and reliably, you simply cannot introduce a modern congestion pricing system.

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