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A $3 billion pollution ‘solution’ in Delhi – but will it work?

Last week, the Ministry of Urban Development announced a Rs. 19,762 crore ($2.95 billion) solution to reduce vehicular pollution in Delhi. If approved, the proposal will seek to reduce emissions from the over 8.8 million vehicles in the city, mostly owned by the rising middle and upper classes.  Despite this class differential in vehicular emissions, some of the improvements sought include:

  • Seven pilot parking management districts
  • An integration of  207 metro stations with other forms of public transit systems
  • Construction of cycling tracks and footpaths with crossings at least every 250 meters, with first use of street space to pedestrians
  • Removal of choke points across the city
  • A procurement of 2,000 new buses immediately and 4,000 new buses in the next phase
  • Development of a Bus Rapid Transit System on high-density routes
  • Parking fees and congestion tax to discourage private vehicles

While several of these suggestions, namely parking management districts and imposing congestion taxes, may curb vehicle use, the rest of the plan largely ignores the intersection of class and the environment in the city. Academics such as Asher Ghertner and Sunalini Kumar have argued that past environmental efforts in Delhi have largely failed due to “bourgeois environmentalism” wherein middle class biases and interests take over environmental efforts that are genuinely in the public interest.

This may very well be the case with the Ministry’s air pollution proposals, which largely focus on bus and metro expansion. In today’s age, car ownership is no longer a practical necessity but rather a symbol of class, prestige, and status. In 2001, Delhi had 900,000 registered private cars. Today, there are more than 2.6 million. Though small in comparison to the city’s population, the increasing use of cars in a deeply congested city is unlikely to be deterred by  building new bus and metro routes. In fact, the Supreme Court acknowledged the problem in January when it asked DMRC to explore the option of creating a ‘premium‘ class service on the Delhi Metro to make the train seem more friendly for the wealthy.

We’ve already seen a big failure in convincing the middle class to use public transport through the Bus Rapid Transit system in 2008, which displaced cars from three lanes to two and dedicated a special lane to bus use. Rather than getting support, the BRT received a hugely negative and critical media campaign by middle-class journalists who lived in colonies along the route. Their complaints centered on the fact that the special bus route increased car travel times by 20 minutes or more, leading to inconveniences for car users. This argument went to the Supreme Court when an activist argued that the BRT system ignored the “wealth creators” of the city who preferred cars. It seems that these reactions to public transport have gone unnoticed in the latest proposals.

Also ignored are larger contributors to air pollution than cars—trucks and two-wheelers—which contribute to 24-25% and 18% of PM 2.5, respectively. Cars, on the other hand, contribute to 14-15%. While public transport may attract owners of two-wheelers, typically lower-middle class, it won’t make big progress in changing truck usage. Policies considering trucks and two-wheelers seem absent from the proposals.

Ultimately, Delhi’s air pollution solutions need a broader perspective and incentive model that accounts for the behaviors driving modes of transport. If Delhi is to curb pollution, it needs to create marketing and norms to get managers, CEOs, members of parliament, and other middle- or upper-class individuals to prioritize public transport. The idea is not as crazy as it sounds; such consumers readily take on public transport in cities like London and New York. However, behavioral nudges must come along-side policies that disincentive car ownership by higher costs to purchasing cars, especially second cars. A prime example is Singapore’s Vehicle Quota System, which makes vehicles 3-5 times the actual cost, thereby incentivizing people to use public transport. The same must go for two-wheelers, and strict environmental regulations must be put on exhaust of all vehicles, including trucks.

It’s time to create norms that are set for everyone, not just the poor. Just as lower-class auto drivers have been forced into using CNG to curb pollution, and over 3 million squatters have been evicted from their land for ‘polluting’ the land, it’s time to create policies that promote the middle- and upper-classes to create a better environment. Though increasing public transport is well-intentioned, it is not the answer. The Ministry of Urban Development must take into account deeper considerations of culture, behavior, and norms and use the increasingly expanding world of marketing and behavioral economics to change what is normal.