Environmentally Sustainable Transport: The Problem of Congestion


1. Introduction

1.1 Urbanisation

Over the last few decades, there has been a noticeable migration of people to urban areas. People are increasingly coming to cities in search of livelihood and with the hope of a better standard of living. In the year 2018, more than 55 per cent of the global population lived in urban areas, which is more than double of what it was in 1950 (UN Population Division 2018). This trend is set to further continue as it is estimated that 70 per cent of the world’s population could be living in cities by the year 2050 (ibid.). As cities currently stand, the resources that they have to offer have been put under immense pressure, with the carrying capacity of the cities having been pushed to the limit.

As cities currently stand, the resources that they have to offer have been put under immense pressure, with the carrying capacity of the cities having been pushed to the limit.

Figure 1
World Urban Population, 1950-2015 with projections to 2050

Source: Rodrigue (n.d.)

1.2 The Indian Context

Over the last few decades, the rate of urbanisation has increased all over the world, and more so in developing countries. Growing at a rapid pace, India is also a fast transforming society. The Census 2011 figures show that 377 million people who make up 31 per cent of the total Indian population live in urban areas (Government of India 2011). This number is expected to rise to 600 million by 2031, which would be 40 per cent of the total population (ibid.). This would mean that there would be a corresponding increase in the number of mega cities and large cities, with the former estimated to rise to 8 (with more than 10 million people each) and the latter to 87 by the year 2031 (United Nations 2016).

Sustainable mobility as a concept encapsulates not just mitigating an individual’s travel footprint but that of the society at large

With cities growing rapidly, an efficient urban transportation system needs to strike a fine balance between two basic essentials. Firstly, it should be able to meet the demands of the population. Secondly, it is essential the envisioned system mitigate negative effects of transport like pollution and accidents (Zegras 2005). Sustainable mobility as a concept encapsulates not just mitigating an individual’s travel footprint but that of the society at large (Kayal, Singh and Kumar 2014). World Bank Council for Sustainable Development defines sustainable mobility as

The ability to meet the needs of society to move freely, gain access, communicate, trade, and establish relationships without sacrificing other essential human or ecological values today or in the future.

Hence sustainable transport system does not limit itself to the narrower target of just reducing carbon emissions but instead takes a more holistic approach to fulfil the accessibility and mobility needs of the population.

Accordingly, sustainable urban mobility can be thought of as a system that promotes a viable economic structure, stable environment, and social equity in an efficient manner that ensures fulfilment of transport needs and land use of not just the current generation but also that of the future (Kayal, Singh and Kumar 2014).

Figure 2
Sustainable Transportation

Source: Rodrigue (n.d.)

2. Nature of the Problem

The problem situation that we are dealing with is the challenges to sustainable urban mobility, and some of the key characteristics that it exhibits make it a public policy problem:

  • Interdependency. Intertwined with various sectors and their problems.
  • Subjectivity. No clear single definition to adopt and practice.
  • Artificiality. Socially constructed by humans.
  • Instability. Multiple solutions for multiple problems that are always altering (Dunn 2014).
[Achieving Sustainable urban mobility] is an ill-structured problem. The most defining characteristic of an ill-structured problem is the nature of its decision problem being completely intransitive. No single policy alternative could be considered that can be preferred to all other policy alternatives for such problems

Having established that this is a public policy problem, it is imperative to study the nature of the problem in order to understand it better. The nature of the problem of sustainable urban mobility can be depicted using the following elements:

  • Decision maker(s). Too many decision makers with respect to this problem.
  • Alternatives. Many known and unknown policy alternatives.
  • Utilities. Conflict among competing goals.
  • Outcomes. May be unknown or subject to risks.
  • Probabilities. Estimable using subjective probabilities (Dunn 2014).

The above properties make it adequately clear that this is an ill-structured problem. The most defining characteristic of an ill-structured problem is the nature of its decision problem being completely intransitive. No single policy alternative could be considered that can be preferred to all other policy alternatives for such problems (Dunn 2014).

Using the methods of problem structuring, the formal problem which comes out of the meta problem of urban mobility is that of congestion. The costs of congestion are manifold, and over the last decade congestion due to traffic has steadily gone up globally. According to the 2019 TomTom Traffic Index, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi and Pune are among the 10 most congested cities in the world. People in Bengaluru spend 71 per cent extra time in traffic, closely followed by Mumbai (65 per cent), Delhi (58 per cent), and Pune (55 per cent) (Cohn 2019).

Figure 3
Peak Hour Congestion (Per cent additional time to travel in peak hours)

Source: Chin et al. (2018)

The growth in population and increase in wealth since the 1980s has resulted in an eightfold increase in demand for transport in India (Boston Consulting Group 2018). This has put significant burden on the public transportation system and infrastructure in the country, and has thereby led to a spurt in congestion in most big cities. In Delhi, the cost of congestion was estimated to be 12 per cent of its GDP annually in reduced productivity, fuel waste, air pollution and accidents (Financial Express 2020). According to the 2017 World Bank Global Infrastructure Outlook, India would require almost USD 974 billion for upgrading only its road and rail network by 2040. An acute shortage of proper parking spots has further exacerbated the problem of congestion in cities.

3. Key Regulatory Challenges

India being the diverse country it is, each city has its own problems and challenges with respect to the issue of transportation. The metropolitan cities and state capitals have to deal with much higher levels of traffic congestion than other smaller cities. Few consultations with the a sectoral expert and review of extant literature on this subject has made it possible to narrow down to few regulatory challenges that most developing countries including India face which aggravate the issue at hand (Baindur 2015).

3.1 Overlap in laws and regulations

The absence of a comprehensive overarching law for urban transportation is a major problem in this sector. While there are some laws and regulations that sparsely address the varied issues of urban transportation, many of them date back to the British era and are therefore redundant in their scope and operationalization. This incoherence in the policy architecture and lack of coordination is further exacerbated by the rampant flouting of traffic rules and regulations due to weak enforcement.

  • Fragmentation of institutional framework

The presence of multiple agencies in the form of ministries and departments at various levels of the central, state, and local governments makes it extremely difficult to implement policies effectively and in a well-coordinated manner. The tussle between the departments of transport planning, urban development, and municipal administration makes efficient coordination next to impossible.

  • Distortion of land markets

One of the key reasons for lack of transport infrastructure development is the issue of land acquisition and the numerous hurdles it creates. The time-consuming procedures and cumbersome regulations lead to a very high increase in the cost of land acquisition in India thereby limiting the opportunity for investment in the development of transport infrastructure.

  • Lack of design standards

Apart from a few standards for construction of road and metro systems, basic design standards for other transport infrastructure development are simply absent. This has led to haphazard designs with different cities following their own standards.

Sustainable urban mobility can be a key economic enabler in addressing the problem of poverty and promoting shared prosperity

4. Proposed Regulatory and Policy Reforms

The key aim is to make the system of urban transportation more sustainable, affordable, accessible, financially feasible, and safe. Keeping these objectives in mind along with some of the global best practices in this sector, following are some of the proposed regulatory and policy reforms with the aim of tackling the problem of congestion.

  • Streamlining regulatory and legal instruments

A Comprehensive Mobility Plan should be developed by urban local bodies within the framework of a model urban transport act. This would require considerable devolution of power to the local bodies to enable them to take effective actions and also be accountable for the same (Baindur 2015: 26). This would enable an integrated approach towards transport planning, land use, financing, etc.

  • Reimagining the budget allocation

Budget allocation for transport and infrastructure projects should be reimagined such that spending shifts from projects that benefit private transport to those that promote use of public transportation or more sustainable non-motorised transport which would help in reducing the problem of congestion (Rode, Heeckt and da Cruz 2019).

  • Integrated planning

It is essential that steps are taken to align the goals of urban development with those of sustainable mobility in order to make the process of policy making more coherent and goal-oriented (Rode, Heeckt and da Cruz 2019).

  • Congestion pricing

This is a strategy that has been successfully adopted by the city of London and New York City has followed suit by adopting the following strategy to limit congestion on the streets. It involves charging the drivers for using the roads in a certain area during a period of time in order to incentivise them to shift to public mode of travel or take a less congested route.

  • Land value financing

The increased price of real estate and new business opportunities around areas where infrastructure projects are undertaken can be used to raise revenue for such projects.

5. Conclusion

In order to address the challenges that the urban transportation sector faces, it is key to understand that urban mobility is a multi-dimensional concept and its complexity can only be addressed through a systems approach which analyses all issues and their causal linkages in order to make the policy interventions more targeted and effective. The demand for mobility is not stand-alone but rather a derived demand which acts as a means for people to achieve their optimal societal and economic ends. A transport system can facilitate this in a sustainable manner if we can achieve city forms that are compact and allows for mixed use communities (Baindur 2015: 34).

Sustainable urban mobility can be a key economic enabler in addressing the problem of poverty and promoting shared prosperity. This can be achieved through integration of transport as well as land use planning. Congestion, pollution, safety, etc. are issues plaguing the transportation sector and these can be solved by ensuring a greater push for public forms of mobility rather than promoting private car ownership and use. ‘Sustainable mobility systems in Indian cities can only be achieved when robust, integrated, and participatory institutions are created and enabled through clear responsibilities, legislative authority, financial independence, and professional competence to effectively enhance accessibility of our cities’ (Baindur 2015: 34).

(Ayush Mehrotra is a Master of Public Policy (MPP ‘21) candidate at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Delhi. Ayush is interested in exploring policies at the intersection of political economy, governance, and institutional design. He can be reached at ayushmehrotra@nls.ac.in)


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