Long hard road
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The Union urban development ministry has asked all states to identify sites of traffic congestion in their cities. This follows a recent communication to the states to consider the adoption of congestion clearing charges. The government's initiative in flagging a key problem in the infrastructure of our cities is welcome. Cars are being added to roads at a rapidly quickening clip, and the consequences, by way of traffic snarls and acutely health-threatening vehicular pollution, are obvious even to the casual observer. Add to this the country's rising petroleum import bill, and there can be no doubt about the need to move passengers from private vehicles to public transport. The identification of a congestion charge could be a beginning but given the complexities of our cities, it is important that urban planners and traffic departments harness it to wider, possibly more ambitious, solutions.
The important lesson from London is that what may appear to be an unpopular move — at the time the congestion charge was begun a decade ago, it certainly was one — can turn around opinion by dint of the success of the administration. It is a lesson that India must keep in mind. Delhi need only look at the setback that accrued from its bus rapid transit corridor experiment to know how the most enlightened of objectives can be dashed by the failure to think through the possible fallout. More importantly, even as our initiatives are inspired by London and Singapore, it needs to be kept in mind that those cities had less ambitious tasks at hand. For India, a congestion tax may not be enough. We need to consider other policy interventions. For instance, with the taking over of roadsides, even pavements, for parking, there should be an urgent look at raising parking fees and disallowing the use of so much road space for parking.