Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Air quality didn't improve—but that doesn't mean it was a failure.
In Delhi, 2016 started with a ban. On January 1, the city government launched a 15-day trial to limit the number of cars on the roads, with the goal of reducing the dangerously high level of air pollution. The plan called for cars with odd- and even-numbered license plates to run on alternate days.
The government has called the trial a success, but official air-quality data and independent air pollution analyses available for that time-period don’t support that view. Delhi’s air quality in the first week of January was, on average, 20 to 25 percent worse than it had been the week before, and worse than it had been over the same period in January 2015, write Rukmini S and Samarth Bansal in The Hindu. Here’s how they sum up their assessment of the ban (with some British spelling):
Simply put, it is disingenuous for the government to claim either that the odd-even trail has improved air quality or that, but for its scheme, the air quality would have been worse given the weather conditions, as Transport Minister Gopal Rai has claimed, since it has simply no way of establishing this without better modelling.
But while the ban wasn’t the quick smog fix Delhi was hoping for, it can’t be discarded as a viable part of any pollution solution. Here are two key lessons it helped bring to light in the two weeks it was in place.
1. Traffic congestion was down
According Delhi residents I spoke to, driving was a breeze during the two weeks the ban was in place. The government estimates that more than 100,000 cars per day were taken off the road as a result of strict enforcement of the ban. And rush-hour traffic, especially around the usual bottlenecks in the city, was down by 30 percent, the Times of India notes. The day after the ban wrapped up, Delhi’s traffic officials saw 40,000 to 60,000 more cars on the streets, according to traffic officials quoted in the Hindustan Times.
According to the government, drivers complied out of fear of the $30 fine (and officials still dealt out more than 9,000 fines in the period the ban was in place, they said). But as the BBC’s Soutik Biswas notes, that number of issued fines isn’t all that high compared to the large volume of traffic in the city. And despite the enforcement, reports have surfaced of fraudulent schemes that helped some drivers elude the ban. Some drivers remained obstinate, openly refusing to follow the rules.
So, while the program indeed wasn’t “a complete failure,” the government could have potentially made it more of a success with stronger enforcement.
2. Cars aren’t the only (or biggest) polluters in Delhi
If there were fewer cars on the road, and cars certainly cause air pollution, why wasn’t there an immediate impact on air quality? After all, a similar ban in Paris made a significant difference in just one day.
According to an analysis by Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, the city contains eight cars per 100 people, much less than in London (31/100) and Singapore (12/100). Cars also account for just 15 percent of all vehicle trips in Delhi, half the car-trip shares found in London or Singapore. “When car ownership, car age, car use and distance travelled in cleaner cities like Singapore and London is much higher than Delhi, then why is our air much dirtier?” Mohan asked in The Indian Express.
He goes on to mention research showing that while transport, brick kilns, and industrial emissions contribute equal particulate matter, power plants contribute over half of the sulfur dioxide. And while transportation emissions contribute over half of Nitrogen-based pollutants, trucks emit the bulk of that.
So private passenger cars are just a part of Delhi’s smog problem. Still, no plan to improve air quality can succeed without reducing the number of vehicles, writes Sunita Narain from the Center for Science and Environment in the Business Standard:
The longterm solution is to make Delhi and its vicinity free of two-wheelers and cars permanently. This can only be possible when we invest in public transportation at a scale never done before.
The Delhi government is now planning to implement a follow-up version of the odd-even ban, and courts have ordered an awareness campaign to help residents understand why such a ban is required. But the city still needs a more comprehensive, multi-faceted strategy if it’s serious about helping its residents take a breath of fresh, clean air in the near future.