Image Credits: TomTom

The importance of time is not lost on us– whether it is the two minutes we fight for during examinations or the two minutes determining if we make it in the nick of time with that one meeting with our boss. Yet, somehow in our daily commutes we do not take losing 15 minutes in traffic on our way to or from home gravely. 

According to the TOMTOM Traffic Index ranking in 2022, two of India’s cities appear in the top 10 most congested cities in the world, Bengaluru ranking second and Pune at sixth, with Delhi at 34th and Mumbai at 47th global ranks. 

According to the Index, in Pune, 134 extra hours are spent driving in rush hours, about five days and 14 hours, with approximately 275 kg of C02 emissions yearly. Mumbai’s statistics are three days and 12 extra hours spent driving in rush hours with 272 kgs of C02 emissions. Contrarily, they are five days and 14 hours for Bengaluru and three days and 13 hours for Delhi, with almost 275 kg and 208 kg of CO2 emissions, respectively.

Time is not the only negative externality of congestion. Pollution is another grave externality. As congestion increases, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions increase. A transportation study conducted in Mumbai in 2014 had predefined routes highlighted that the additional time spent traveling during congestion periods can explain the increased CO2 emissions recorded in that period.

High levels of congestion naturally lead to higher levels of air pollution. A study in The Economic Times estimated around 3,85,000 deaths caused by exhaust emissions from diesel vehicles.  

A solution called “Congestion Pricing” or “Congestion Charging” can be implemented here. I was introduced to this concept on a recent trip to London, Britain, where it is implemented to reduce road congestion. Under congestion charging, vehicles entering a predetermined congestion charge zone have to pay for using those roads or driving in that area during particular hours of the day. An automatic number plate recognition system charges the fee. Signs are displayed informing drivers upon entering a congestion charge zone, along with the time slots for the fee. The driver can pay in advance or on the day of their trip. If paid later, there are specific penalties applied over the basic fee.

A similar system is implemented on their trains. Commuters planned their travel considering the “peak” and “off-peak” ticket prices. Charges were applied for parking in Central London (with time restrictions and relaxations displayed on boards). People traveling to Central London even had to plan and reserve a parking spot occasionally. 

The concept of congestion pricing or charging is not new. It has been followed since1975 in Singapore and erratically since 1983 in Hong Kong. Is it finally time for India to introduce something similar in its congested cities?

Business districts and bottlenecks of cities can implement it during their peak congestion hours on private vehicles. Boards can be displayed, informing drivers upon entering congestion zones, allowing them to divert and choose a different route or continue through the congestion zone. This could encourage commuters to use various public transport options or carpooling, reducing the number of private vehicles on the road.

While public policies have been aimed at transportation, such as National Urban Transport Policy, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, Smart Cities Mission and National Transit Oriented Development Policy, none directly reduce congestion or limit the number of vehicles. They tackle the problem indirectly by having funds for improving public transport, building supporting transportation infrastructure, or revising urban planning, such as making smart cities. 

The debate of introducing congestion pricing in some Indian cities (Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru) has been ongoing for many years. However, no concrete action has been taken in this direction. 

Two primary factors that should be considered for implementing congestion pricing are as follows: 

  1.  Choosing the infrastructure via which congestion pricing would be executed and the subsequent infrastructure expenditure
  2. Determining the fee or “additional charge” and time slots 

London presently uses an automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system that reads a vehicle’s registration number, which is checked for congestion fees. If the fee is paid within time, the image captured by the ANPR is deleted the same day or the following day.  

 ANPR and other GPS-based technologies are being considered to replace FASTags in India. Either of these technologies could be used for the execution of congestion pricing. Furthermore, a user interface and redressal system would have to be established for drivers to track all the deductions or payments made and raise questions or grievances.

Devising the charge and time intervals is also a sensitive matter. It should be optimal enough to ensure that certain sections are not targeted (for instance, those residing in congested areas who cannot avoid these roads) and it is not taken casually and disregarded. Hence, the pricing should not be discriminatory but rather incentivizing. 

The biggest hurdle to implementing this concept is banking on the public’s support. Demonstrating how this additional fee would improve commuters’ quality of life is a tall order. Other concerns could involve the taxi/cab businesses. Not all drivers own the vehicle they use. Hence, if the congestion charge is to be levied by reading number plates, the burden of payment could be troublesome. Additionally, if GPS applications are used for congestion charging, ensuring that all drivers installed it and comply would be tricky. In this case, the privacy of the data collected of one’s location and whereabouts, would have to be maintained along with transparent communication of the terms of data treatment and management.

To attain the public’s trust and appeal, awareness campaigns and open public discussions could be organized to elucidate them regarding the process, its benefits, and how the charged money would be utilized.. For example, in London, the net revenue from these charges must be used in the transportation sector.

A University of Chicago study in Bengaluru reported that people did not mind leaving even an hour early if it could save 15 minutes of commuting time. Another study suggested that people are greatly receptive to congestion pricing when the perceived benefits included reduced travel time and increased public transportation satisfaction. That is, the accumulated money via congestion charging, when directed toward the city’s public transportation service, increased the commuters’ satisfaction. The government should focus on conducting pilot studies to chalk out the motivators and concern areas of the policy for its successful implementation.

London saw a reduction of 30% in congestion and 15-20% in CO2 within two and five years, respectively, after introducing congestion pricing in 2003. The offset against carbon and nitrogen oxide will further aid India to achieve its Conference of Parties and Sustainable Development Goals.  

Is it finally time for India to put this concept into gear? The results can only be realized with a calculated plan and exhaustive research. 

Read more: Exploring India’s Platform Economy

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.

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Ishieta Dhar

Ishieta Dhar after completing her B.Com (Hons) pursued M.A Economics from Amity University. She is interested in policy development. She is currently looking forward to pursuing a Masters in Public Policy while leaning towards economic and welfare policies. She likes learning about various disciplines and the possible impacts they could have on policies. In her free time she indulges in solving puzzles and practicing cardistry.