Monday 9 April 2018

Congestion pricing for Delhi?

Delhi's congestion is chronic, as incomes have risen, car ownership has risen and by no means has Delhi been able to increase road capacity to meet this demand. Neither TomTom nor Inrix have data for congestion in Delhi, but the Centre for Science and Environment in India reports:

Average traffic speed on 13 arterial roads 50-60 per cent lower than their design speed and 35-48 per cent lower than the regulated speed of 40-50 km/hour 
No non-peak hour now on main arterial roads -- virtually no difference in time taken to travel between peak and non-peak hours 

The Hindustan Times claims that Delhi needs to replicate the success of Singapore in charging for road use.  This is a fair assessment, although I would caution simply thinking that what Singapore did could be replicated in Delhi.  For a start, Delhi needs to have a reliable motor vehicle registration database correlated to number plates for enforcement purposes.  It isn't clear that it does.  Without that, there simply cannot be a congestion pricing system at all. Secondly, there would need to be effort made to ensure that basic steps are made to ensure alternative modes are able to function appropriately.  That means making it easier to walk and cycle, as well as bus priority measures which are rigorously enforced.  Finally, there is a need to ensure that the solution for Delhi is implemented incrementally.  Don't try to replicate any other city's ideas wholesale, but look at charging a handful of locations initially at the most seriously congested periods, to see what the results are.

Yet Delhi has a network of toll roads, which use manual as well as electronic tolling.  The obvious first step ought to be conversion of all existing toll roads in Delhi to fully electronic free flow operation.  India has already mandated the National Electronic Toll Collection programme for national highway, so this provides a good starting point.  That's not to mean that the same system should be used.   There are sound reasons for thinking about competitive service delivery in terms of accounts, but if Delhi wants to move quickly, its existing toll roads provide a starting point to test charging without any barriers, and to also test charging higher at congested periods.

Delhi has tried demand management of road use

The odd-even number plate test in January 2016 was a success according to The News Minute.  This pilot meant that from 1 January-15 January, from 0800-2000 only odd-numbered cars could drive 

Delhi's Odd-Even number plate tria

Indian Express reports speeds went up 5.4%, particulate pollution decreased by a relative 10-13% on average, with notable results either side of the period the test was in force.  In other words, pollution declined after 0800, and increased again after midnight (because a new rule on truck traffic restricts much of that traffic to the midnight-0800 period).  

An odd-even policy isn't a very good idea though, primarily because it rewards those who can afford two cars and can encourage those with one car to buy a cheap, old, more highly polluting vehicle to avoid the restriction.  However, the policy did prove that influencing traffic demand in Delhi can improve results.  (More details on the results of the test are available here PDF). 

Criticisms need to be addressed

An article in Outlook India by Dinesh Mohan (Honorary Professor at IIT Delhi) basically indicates scepticism that it is the solution for Delhi.

quotes a number of academics to put some doubt about the efficacy of congestion pricing, yet none of these offer any evidence.  He quotes Professor Peter R. Stopher of the University of Sydney as saying “that charging motorists a politically acceptable amount will probably still not make significant impact on overall system congestion, while the potential for serious impacts on the economy become large if the charges are made sufficiently high or the area covered is made sufficiently large.”  Yet this seems to presume that charging means some sort of cordon or area charge.  There has never been a scheme to date that charges congestion on a system-wide basis.  Singapore is the closest, but is still far from being a network charging system.  What IS clear is that there are positive results where charging has been applied appropriately, such as in Singapore and Stockholm.

He then quotes Brian Taylor from UCLA as saying congestion is a "sign of success", which is not what many road users think.  The analogy with restaurants is hardly appropriate when people have choices between thousands of restaurants in a city, and the restaurants that are most successful can either raise prices to increase profits, or expand locations to cope with demand.

Mohan's claim that "there has been little consensus among thinking traffic experts on how to think about urban traffic congestion and how to deal with it. This is why there are very few cities the world that had the courage to experiment with the concept of congestion charging" is quite wrong.  There is widespread consensus that pricing of road use would reduce congestion, the reason pricing has been applied in few cases is a mix of political will, lack of innovation in the development of options for pricing and the inability to communicate to a sceptical and untrusting public that paying to drive on some roads at peak times will improve conditions for them.

Certainly Delhi is different from all other cities that have introduced congestion charging, but the claim that it is very expensive to implement is simply wrong. The costs of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology have dropped significantly in the past 15 years and improved in reliability.

Delhi needs a congestion management strategy

I don't doubt that there are many other ways to address congestion in Delhi that need to be explored as well.  Enforcement against illegal parking and considerable work to improve the design of existing roads could help ease congestion, along with enforcement of behaviour that promotes congestion (such as poor lane behaviour).  Delhi needs a congestion management strategy, this would consider a wide range of measures including:
  • Design of existing road infrastructure, including traffic signals, roundabouts, intersections, lanes, parking restrictions. 
  • Enforcement of traffic and parking offences.
  • Provision of adequate facilities to ensure walking and cycling can be undertaken safely and easily for short trips.
  • Public transport provision, including priority for public transport.
  • New road capacity where appropriate.
  • Road pricing.
Road pricing should be a part of this, but objectives need to be clear. Delhi still has a significant population that does not drive, but may be expected to want to own a car in the next 10-20 years. Although it's unreasonable to expect this desire in owning a car to be curtailed, that isn't a reason to not ensure that low cost alternatives are not made as reasonably attractive as they can be (walking and cycling), and that corridor space is set aside for bus transit to be developed (as Delhi also grows its underground metro system).  Delhi may also seek to wrestle control of its commuter railway system from Indian Railways, so that money can go into enhancing system capacity, whether by track, signalling or rolling stock (and to try to capture the growth in fare revenue to pay for these improvements).

For road pricing, Delhi should get its road management right more generally, and after converting existing toll roads to free flow tolling, with peak charges to help spread demand, pilot charging on critical parts of the highway network where diversion can be minimised.  Singapore does have an effective approach to reviewing and updating charges, and incrementally Delhi can develop a network of charging, that generates revenue that will be needed to fix intersections, corridors and other parts of the road network that need modernisation.

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