Image credits: Ketan Bhardwaj | Flickr

It is no longer the season of stubble burning, the time of the year when air pollution around Delhi-NCR reaches alarming levels. This is also a time of great debate and deliberation. From  politicians to government officials, environmental activists and judges to concerned citizens, all rise to the occasion and recommend their solutions to the problem. 

It is true insofar as the months of October and November are concerned, that stubble burning is a significant cause of the problem, its contribution to Delhi’s PM2.5 pollution is estimated to be at about 40% (Mint). However, one cannot ignore the fact that air pollution is a menace for the region throughout the year. As I write this article in the first week of January, Delhi’s AQI remains in the ‘very poor’ category with PM2.5 above 300 (Business Standard). IQAir, a Swiss group measuring air quality levels across the globe based on the concentration of PM2.5, has reported Delhi to be the most polluted capital city of the world for three consecutive years from 2018 to 2020 (Reuters).

Vehicular emissions are the single biggest source of air pollution in Delhi. They account for 80% of the total carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, and 28% of the total PM2.5 emissions in the state (Arpan Chatterji). It is well known that Delhi has an extraordinarily high number of automobiles. In the last fifteen years, the number of motor vehicles in Delhi has increased from 317 per thousand in 2005-06 to 643 per thousand in 2019-20, far exceeding all other major cities of India (Hindustan Times).

High incidence of automobiles adversely impacts cities in several ways other than air pollution. Foremost of them all is the sacrifice of public space. To accommodate higher traffic, streets are widened, a large proportion of the land is reserved for parking vehicles, and huge flyovers shrouding the city from one corner to another are built. Often, the urban poor bear the cost of these projects as slums are forcefully cleared and street vendors are evicted from their place of livelihood. Thus, it is desirable to reduce the absolute number of automobiles in use in cities.

But the government, caught unaware and unprepared during the peak months of air pollution in the state, comes up with band-aid solutions to reduce automobiles on the streets. Most well known of them all is the “Odd-Even Scheme” under which private vehicles ending with an odd number are allowed on one day and vice versa on another (Business Standard). In a more recent instance, the Supreme Court went many steps further and suggested a 2-day lockdown for reducing air pollution in the state (Deccan Herald). 

Such desperate measures taken under panic and pressure, address the symptoms of the problem instead of diagnosing its root cause and treating the same appropriately. In Delhi’s case, high usage of automobiles can largely be attributed to its unwalkable urban landscape that compels people to take automobiles even for covering short distances (Hindustan Times). In 1964, the eminent urban theorist Jane Jacobs, in her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, proposed certain principles that can reduce people’s dependence on automobiles and nudge them to prefer walking instead (Jane Jacobs).

Jacobs’ observed a spontaneous urban phenomena, not deliberately planned or imposed, that contributes to the attrition of vehicles. She illustrated the same using instances from certain localities in New York, where intense commercial use coupled with dense crowding of vendors and customer-pedestrians, induced private passenger cars to avoid taking those streets. Dominated by pedestrians, the concentrated and mixed use of urban land, besides reducing vehicular traffic, promoted diverse uses, and increased street commerce.

It is important to note that Jacobs’ idea of attrition is very different from a legal demarcation of “vehicle-free zones”. Instead of imposing a mandate, it reduces the incidence of automobile usage by making it more convenient for the people to walk. It does not import an exogenous solution but uses the features of a vital urban landscape itself to achieve its objective. Jacobs’ herself stressed that her point was “not attrition of automobiles in cities, but rather the attrition of automobiles by cities”.

There is much for Delhi’s urban planners and municipal authorities to learn from Jacobs’ observations. First, that the city should invest seriously in improving its sidewalks. Reports suggest that nearly 40% of Delhi’s roads have no footpaths (Newslaundry). Even the ones that do have it, are either too high or too narrow, forcing people to either walk on the main road or avoid walking altogether (Hindustan Times). 

Second, smaller blocks should be preferred over large ones so that there are frequent crossings and corners for people to turn (Jane Jacobs). Presently, large blocks in many parts of the city make it greatly difficult for pedestrians to cross the road. In Central Delhi in particular, the blocks are so large that pedestrians are either compelled to cover long stretches in order to arrive at a zebra crossing and move to the other side, or risk their life by crossing through the middle of the road itself.

Third, zoning regulations in the city should be eased to enable diverse uses within each locality (Shanu Athiparambath). Separation of residential, commercial, and agricultural zones, as is the current practice in most parts of the city, compels people to commute long distances to and from their daily errand, making it inevitable for them to use automobiles (Teal India). To reverse this, the city needs to liberalise its zoning regulations, augment the scope for mixed uses and promote dense concentration of people.

I recognise that the three proposals, evinced above, do not offer an immediate solution to the problem. However, they can serve as a long-term guide for policy makers to think beyond lockdowns or odd-even, for reducing the number of automobiles and limiting air pollution in the state. Instead of mandating limits on vehicular use, the aim should be to transform urban design in a manner that incentivises, at least a section of the inhabitants, to give up motor vehicles and prefer walking instead.

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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.