Think of any solution to improve transport in a city and chances are that one will come up with more roads or buses or trains. With the former, which is the preferred solution in most metros – particularly with fly-overs and the like – the very method creates its own hazards. Once the authorities create more space for vehicles, it prompts people to use (or buy) a vehicle and as a result, the flow of traffic especially in rush hour decreases. To use a physical metaphor, the "arteries" simply clog up.

It is just as well, therefore, that some transport experts are turning their minds to "demand management", as distinct from supply. At a recent exposition, the Mumbai Environment & Social Network (MESN) spelled out how this could be done in the country's commercial capital. Ashok Datar, a transport expert from MESN, cited how two decades ago, the renowned BEST (Bombay Electricity Supply and Transport) ran to 75% capacity; it was now down to 57%, due to the slow pace at which the buses ply, since cars hog the available space. Interestingly, he compared the cost of cars to flats: the former were now five times cheaper than they were in the 1980s, when indexed against contemporary real estate prices.

According to Ashok Datar of MESN, cars are five times cheaper today than they were in the 1980s when indexed against contemporary Mumbai real estate prices.

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It is well known that Delhi has as many cars as the three other metros combined. For the year ending this March, some 50,000 were added in Mumbai. But there have been some worthwhile improvements. Unknown to Mumbaikars, the consumption of CNG is now greater by volume than petrol: its consumption has risen by 350% per cent over the year, while petrol had gone up by only 25%. All taxis and most buses have switched to this environment-friendly fuel, though dirty diesel persists.

Despite the congestion and pollution caused by private motorized transport, the taxes remain very low. In Mumbai, the one-time tax is pegged at around 4% of the cost of a vehicle, whereas in Singapore, which is the model so far as demand management is concerned, it is a whopping 150% of the cost. That city-state practices good free market principles: you need a permit to own a car, and this is determined by demand and supply: there are a fixed number of permits and assuming that no one at a point of time is selling a car, you cannot buy a permit. Even Shanghai, which Mumbai is trying to emulate, charges 50% as this one-time tax. London has followed Singapore's example in charging a congestion fee for vehicles entering the central business district and raised this from £5 to £8. Significantly, motorists did not oppose it as they did the first time, for the simple reason that traffic flows much faster in central London now.

MESN's one-point agenda is to raise the road user fee. The occupancy of cars is a low 1.8 for cars and taxis, excluding the driver. With 5 lakh private cars in the city, this means that there are more than 1 million seats going empty each day! By increasing the occupancy to 2.5, very many more people could be transported to and from work every day. On arterial roads, it was worth earmarking high-occupancy lanes, especially now that technology permits the use of optical scanners, smart cards etc. Ironically, an Indian company Mastek had designed the electronic devices to enforce London's congestion tax!

Parking fees

Raising parking fees was another good way to control demand. There are only 6,710 bays in Mumbai and the charge is only Rs.5 per hour (up from Rs.3 in 1991) as a flat rate. Considering that the city has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, this is plainly ridiculous. In a modern housing complex these days, it costs Rs.5 lakh to get a parking space. What is more, there are no telescopic increases in fees through the day, with the result that the first to arrive benefits the most and the casual motorist is penalized. Yet, the same motorists raise a furore if there is a move to charge fees to park on certain roads or raise the existing fees. At the MESN presentation, the head of the Western India Automobile Association, which has 60,000 members, threatened to move court if there was any such move! (Myopically, it blamed taxis for the congestion.)

As far back as in 1993, British consultants W S Atkins cited how the municipal corporation could collect Rs.19 crore by way of parking fees, if properly applied and there were fewer than 2 lakh cars then; today, the city's revenue is just Rs.5 crore with more than twice the number of cars. Every state government and municipal corporation could, for a start, make it compulsory for housing complexes to provide parking, whether it is under or over the ground. According to MESN, motorists could bear up to Rs.15 an hour – three times more than present.

A MESN survey of a 15 km-long stretch in Dadar revealed that every building society had far too many gates, which meant that fewer cars could be parked on the roads opposite these. At one 5,000 sq ft building site under construction, the builders were providing just four parking spaces, while there were six shops there. Of the 2,125 available parking spaces in this Dadar area, as many as 2,029 were not charged for, 86 of these being used by tempos and trucks.

Road use charges

Proper road pricing would raise Rs.15 crore officially, of which Rs.10 crore could accrue from fines when vehicles are towed away. These fines could be trebled, from Rs.300 now to Rs.1,000, which would prove a real deterrent and make people think twice about driving. The practice of turning a blind eye to chaffeurs who use no-parking sites and drive off when the traffic police appear should be done away with: merely parking on these areas should attract a fine.

Additional measures to manage demand could be the use of odd and even number plates on alternate days on certain routes, although there was the danger that motorists would buy a second car or employ servants to alter the plates every other day! Mumbai registers 60 cars a day but the entry of cars with out-of-city registration numbers (like Thane) which attract lower taxes could be stopped or fined heavily.

What is more, ways should be found of charging tolls on the fly-overs. The coastal highways will attract these. According to Datar, the controversial Rs.1,200 crore Bandra-Worli Sea Link, which is under completion, will cost a one-time user Rs.30 and it is likely that the entire coastal route from Bandra to Nariman Point will ultimately cost over Rs.200, going by proposed toll rates. However, according to an MESN survey, 80% of motorists (even some years ago, over 125,000 travelled this distance daily) were not prepared to pay more than Rs.50.

This raises the major issue of who is going to bear the cost of these mammoth schemes: the 50 fly-overs have cost around Rs.1,500 crore and the new ones being contemplated will be another Rs.1,000 crore. The Worli-Nariman Point Sea Link will cost Rs.3,500 crore at current estimates. Indeed, Mumbai is spending over Rs.12,000 crore on private motorized transport, which is only used by 9% of the travelling public – and causes 60% of the pollution.