TRAFFIC CHAOS | Road ahead for gridlocked Bengaluru: Congestion pricing or parking reform?
Cities such as Singapore, London and Stockholm that have imposed congestion pricing have demonstrated the complexities the exercise involves
A nightmarish traffic jam descended on Bengaluru’s roads on Wednesday (September 27) evening as many residents looked to get away from the city ahead of a long weekend. Instead of quickly finding their way out of the city, they spent hours inside stationary vehicles as, according to the city police, “unprecedented traffic” clogged roads and frustrated citizens. Reports quoted traffic police as saying that the number of cars on the road was twice the usual count: At around, 7-30 pm on Wednesday, there were 3.5 lakh vehicles on Bengaluru’s overwhelmed roads. Wednesday’s traffic chaos was a reminder that the city needs to urgently address its traffic problem. The time is now.
But what are the options?
Five years after Delhi proposed to explore the feasibility of congestion pricing before dropping the idea quietly, the Karnataka government’s planning department and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) have recommended it for non-exempt (read: private) vehicles entering Bengaluru through nine high-density corridors during busy hours.
For the south Indian metropolis, reasons to propose the tax and make drivers pay for the congestion they cause on roads is much the same as for any city adopting the policy of road pricing. Road congestion causes air pollution, holds up buses and emergency vehicles, people stuck in traffic waste fuel, time, productivity and the economy suffer.
It is only fair that those who cause the damage realise the heavy price involved and pay for these negative external costs.
But Bengaluru’s reputation is also at stake. In 2022, the city centre of India’s tech hub was the second slowest in the 'average travel time it took to cover 10 km' category on the TomTom Index, which ranked 389 cities globally on their levels of traffic congestion. Incidentally, Bengaluru was right behind London, which has had congestion pricing since 2003.
“Traffic congestion in Bengaluru could deter investors, which is one of the reasons it could be a major concern for the government,” said the report titled Karnataka’s Decade -- Roadmap to $ 1 Trillion. Released on September 22, this report prepared by the state department of planning, programme monitoring and statistics and FICCI suggested congestion tax for the state capital with the objective “to make users conscious of the costs they impose on one another when they take to the road during peak hours.”
Almost all Indian cities are trapped in the web of induced demand. As automobile sales soar, governments try to catch up by building new roads and widening the existing ones. But it is a Sisyphean task – the more they build, the faster they get filled up. To break this vicious cycle, mobility experts have for long advocated demand-side management measures for Indian roads. But so far, they have just remained as suggestions of academic interest.
“Traffic congestion has been the Achilles Heel of Bengaluru. (The proposal for) Congestion charging is a welcome move as this demand management strategy can effectively complement traditional supply-side solutions such as constructing flyovers and widening roads for holistic congestion management,” says Pawan Mulukutla, director of Integrated Transport at WRI-India, and a Bengaluru resident.
If implemented, Bengaluru would be the first Indian city to impose a congestion tax. But as examples from cities that adopted it show, its success will require finding political and public support and a lot of backend preparations and investments.
Singapore's successful experiment
Cities such as Singapore, London and Stockholm that have imposed congestion pricing — New York City is struggling to get it started by next year — have demonstrated the complexities the exercise involves.
In 1975, Singapore was the first city (state) in the world to levy a congestion tax on private vehicles entering its business district. Forty-eight years on, it has evolved into the most comprehensive road-pricing mechanism anywhere in the world. But it has only been “accepted reluctantly” by the people, AP Gopinath Menon, who was an engineer in the working group that enforced congestion pricing in 1975, told this reporter in an email interview in 2018.
Recalling how it took a year-long dialogue to convince people about its benefits, Menon who was the chief transportation engineer from 1991-2001, said the Singapore government tried to make the deal reasonable by promising better land use, smoother traffic, new roads and, most importantly, better public transportation.
“The strict land-use regulations ensured that traffic congestion and car parking issues do not get out of hand. Also, what helped was the system’s high credibility, which assured the motorists that they would not be charged wrongly,” he said.
Experimenting further, Singapore was also, in 1990, the first to introduce the Certificate of Entitlement (CoE) for new car buyers, who must place a monetary bid to procure one. To upgrade the congestion tax collection mechanism, the city-state is now looking at the most advanced satellite-based tolling.
Then London, Stockholm bit the bullet
London bit the bullet in 2003, introducing a congestion tax to discourage private vehicles from entering its central district. What helped the British capital was the institutional congruity it achieved through legislative action beforehand. The management of the highways, about 500 miles of key roads in the city, signals, buses, the underground, and trains and traffic enforcement came together under Transport for London (TfL), which was formed in 2000 as part of the Greater London Authority by the Greater London Authority Act passed in 1999.
“The critical ingredients for the congestion charge, which are the management of the road space and enforcing of road space rationing, and benefiting from it because of the buses, became part of one organisation. That is one of the biggest reasons why the congestion charge happened in London,” Shashi Verma, chief technology officer at TfL, told HT in an interview in March this year.
The results were apparent. Footnoting a Transport for London document of 2006, the Karnataka report said that, within three years of congestion taxing, traffic congestion within the operational area in London dropped by 30%, with delays dropping from 2.3 to 1.8 minutes per km.
To address concerns of air pollution, London has also marked out ultra-low emission zone where drivers of high-emission vehicles must pay an additional charge.
Swedish capital Stockholm chose to demonstrate the benefits of congesting taxing by launching a seven-month trial in 2006. A year later, it made the tax permanent after a referendum approved it by a margin of 52 to 45. By 2013, a poll showed, 70% of residents were supporting it.
Once idyllic, Bengaluru is now gridlocked
Idyllic is no longer the expression once used to describe Bengaluru’s pace of life: It’s now gridlocked. The Karnataka report cites some alarming statistics: In 13 years, the number of private vehicles grew by 280%, from 2.1 million in 2007 to eight million in 2020. The Bengaluru Development Authority estimates that 11.8 million citizens waste 600 million person-hours annually and almost 280,000 litres of fuel per hour in the city due to road congestion.
Apart from the most obvious impact that decluttering roads of private vehicles would have on the city’s air quality and mobility, the recommendation for a congestion tax comes with the promise of increased revenues that could fund improvements in public transport. Bengaluru is anyway getting upgrades in its Metro and suburban rail networks. The Metro operates a network of 70 km, which is likely to go up to 175 km by 2025. The first phase of the Bengaluru Suburban Rail Project, initiated in June 2022, is likely to start in three years.
While the report pointed out certain deficiencies in the existing public bus service run by Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation — presently carrying 45% of the commuter load — it acknowledged the short and long-term plans of the BMTC to modernise. Some of these, such as the introduction of the intelligent transportation system, integrating it with an automatic fare collection system, app-based electronic, digital, and card-based ticketing and real-time bus tracking, are already underway.
But even in its present state, Bengaluru is good to go. Shreya Gadepalli, founder and managing trustee of Urban Works, a Chennai-based think tank, said Bengaluru has more buses per capita than any other Indian city. “But those buses are stuck in terrible car traffic. The congestion fee would discourage a sizeable number of motorists from using the roads during peak hours, thereby making way for buses to run swiftly. The fee would also provide a perennial source of revenue to invest in more buses, better buses that can attract motorists,” she said.
For even better reach, former WRI-India CEO, OP Agarwal, who was the lead author of India’s National Urban Transport Policy 2006, suggested high-quality shuttle bus services, preferably electric buses, from areas outside the congestion zone to connect with the congestion zone.
To draw people to alternative modes of mobility, added Mulukutla, areas in the congestion zone must have wider footpaths and pedestrian crossings that are ‘safer by design’ and follow the Indian Road Congress guidelines. “Additionally, the revenue generated from congestion pricing can be utilised for local area development, which will further enhance the indirect benefits of the initiative.”
The constitution of a single transport planning agency as mandated by the Bengaluru Metropolitan Land Transport Authority (BMLTA) Act passed in December 2022 could help address public transportation issues. The legislation mandates the authority to look at the implementation of travel demand management measures such as congestion pricing, parking regulations, tolling, and special purpose lanes to regulate travel demand in the urban mobility region.
But even with the backend fixed, how many motorists will accept the congestion tax?
“New charges of any kind are bound to be seen negatively by those having to pay. Car users have a stronger voice than people riding buses, even though the latter is a much larger group," warned Gadepalli. But they might warm up to the concept when they see the benefits. "Motorists are willing to pay to get a traffic-free way. Those unwilling or unable to pay get better bus services. The government must explicitly commit to improving and expanding bus services. An ad campaign that tugs at the hearts of people is the key to success,” she added.
What technology to use?
What and how to charge the congestion tax requires identifying the best-suited method of collection, investments in creating this collection infrastructure, and running the system efficiently to give people confidence that they will not be “wrongly charged”.
The report recommends the use of FASTag, which has already been deployed in Bengaluru since 2021, to collect the proposed congestion tax at nine entry points to the inner city. As many as 12 million vehicles travel into the city of Bengaluru every day so levying a congestion charge could translate into significant revenue for the city, which in turn, will be spent on transport infrastructure, the rport said.
In its 48 years of congestion pricing, Singapore has upgraded the tax collection mechanism. When it was launched in 1975, drivers had to display a pre-purchased windshield licence. In 1998, the system became electronic with cameras placed on overhead gantries reading and deducting the charge automatically. The Singapore model of road pricing is better, said Gadepalli, because of the variable charge. “London has a somewhat crude model in which motorists pay a flat fee to enter an area prone to congestion. Once inside, there is no limit to how much they drive. The Singapore model charges motorists a fee for each section of road they use. The fee is proportional to demand. The greater the demand, the higher the fee. This model manages to keep all roads free of congestion. Also, the technology deployed in Singapore is better than the one in London.”
Are Indian cities equipped to handle high-technology, capital-intensive systems required for levying congestion pricing? Experts such as OP Agarwal said it needs to be “thought through” in a case-by-case manner. “If not run efficiently,” he warned, “it would be foolish to think of having toll gates, such as those on our highways as these can worsen the congestion.”
As an alternative demand-side management measure better suited to conditions in Indian cities, Agarwal suggested parking reforms. A variable parking fee that is determined by location, day and time “will obviate the need for expensive congestion tax collection infrastructure and would instead use existing facilities in place for collecting the fee,” he said. Another alternative could be to limit the amount of parking space available for cars, thereby compelling people to shift to other modes of transport because they would find it difficult to find parking space, he added.
Even as cars, whether in motion or stationary, have been the biggest cause of congestion on roads and encroachment of walking space, parking reforms have failed to take off due to the lack of public support and political appetite for it.
“If you can’t even enforce parking regulations, then forget about trying to enforce a congestion charge… address the whole politics of parking, first and foremost,” said Shashi Verma in the interview with HT.