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.
The city doesn’t have a strong public transportation system or the administrative prowess to make the ambitious plan work.
By December, Delhi’s smog becomes so thick at certain points in the day that you can barely see your own hand. Delhiites know by now that the toxic air in the city with the world’s most polluted air might cause flight delays, school closings, and cancelled outdoor events. The more insidious repercussions are the chronic health problems.
“We’re living in a gas chamber,” Judges in the Delhi High Court declared last week, as they urged local and central to devise a solution to curb the dangerously high levels of air pollution. The Delhi government responded quickly, and announced restrictions on cars in the city. Starting January 1, residents with odd- and even-numbered license plates will be allowed to drive on alternate days. These rules will be applicable from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m every day, except Sunday.
Reactions to the announcement have been polarized. Environmental groups have lauded the effort as a milestone, but skeptics have criticized the plan as impractical and half-baked. As a former resident of the city, I, too, am not convinced that this rule, at least in its current form, will be a great plan—from the perspective of pollution reduction as well as social justice.
For one, on days they can’t drive, Delhi’s residents don’t have an extensive, safe public transportation system to rely on. The city’s women, especially, are often reluctant to use buses or metros given the high frequency of sexual assaults that have taken place on them in recent years.
The city government hasn’t laid out penalties for violators, but it’s not hard to imagine that people will try to skirt the restrictions. Delhi’s well-off residents, in particular, might be able to pay the fines, or even get away with bribing traffic cops. They may also just purchase another car with a license plate ending in the digit they need. Again, though, lower-middle class families who can’t afford a second car might be left stranded as a result of the ban, as Rajesh Roy of The Wall Street Journal points out.
Similar plans have been implemented in cities around the world with short-term success in reducing air pollution, at best. Beijing’s 2008 plate restrictions yielded mixed results on car use and smog, even though the city’s public transit system is far better than the one in Delhi. In many other developing cities with similar programs, including Bogota, Sao Paulo, and Mexico City, residents found and abused loopholes. In Mexico City, the ban led to an increase in the number of vehicles in the road while it was in effect, largely the result of corruption. (Paris did see smog reductions in just one day of banning cars this year, but again, its public transport system is very different from Delhi’s.)
Here are some current and former Delhi residents who responded when I asked them what they thought of the move:
The Delhi government has said that its plan to ration cars will be implemented on a 15-day trial basis, among a handful of pollution-reducing measures. Bringing the number of cars in Delhi down from 8.8 million is an ambitious aim that will require many working parts, some of which may ultimately need some tweaks. But even if the plate trial alone doesn’t work, it’s heartening to know that the government has finally taken a significant step towards a solution to a problem that has long plagued the city.