A man works on his laptop as he waits for a train at a metro station in Delhi in 2014.
A man works on his laptop as he waits for a train at a metro station in Delhi in 2014. Tsering Topgyal/AP

Despite severe air pollution, higher-income residents of Delhi prefer to drive or hail cars rather than ride the metro. What will change their minds?

Every winter when New Delhi’s air quality reaches hazardous levels, much of the conversation about it tends to focus on two causes—the practice of crop burning by farmers in nearby states, and the bursting of firecrackers during the Hindu festival Diwali.

There’s no doubt that these are both major contributors to the Indian capital’s toxic winter air. But putting these events in the spotlight can be frustrating for those who study pollution and wish there was greater public scrutiny of the issue year-round.

Air-quality issues in Delhi, after all, are not restricted to October and November. According to data from India’s Central Pollution Control Board, only two days between May 2015 and October 2017 had “good” air quality. Adding “satisfactory” air-quality days to the “good” ones still accounts for less than 8 percent of the two-and-a-half year period.

A policeman wears a mask while controlling traffic on a road in Delhi in October 2017. (Saumya Khandelwal/Reuters)

“The problem is that a lot of times when these conversations [about pollution] happen, it’s because of a trigger which takes it from very bad to hazardous levels,” said Amit Bhatt, the head of integrated urban transport at EMBARQ India, an arm of the World Resources Institute. “But very bad cannot be constructed as the new good,” he said, referring to the rest of the year.

If the focus shouldn’t be on crop burning or Diwali, where should it be? To road and transport specialists like Bhatt, the answer is vehicular pollution, a much more consistent source of Delhi’s severe air-quality problems. One study, released by the Indian Institute of Technology last year, recommended five separate vehicular pollution related measures to the Delhi government, each of which could significantly improve the city’s air quality.

Still, the number of registered private vehicles in Delhi continues to rise. It crossed 10 million earlier this year, and almost 900,000 cars were added during India’s 2015–2016 fiscal year alone.

This worries Bhatt, who believes there must be efforts to get more of Delhi’s affluent residents to move away from private vehicles and onto public transportation. “That’s the starting point,” said Bhatt. He would initially focus on people with motorbikes, which make up more than 6.6 million of the private vehicles on Delhi’s roads, rather than car owners, who may be less inclined to give up their comfort and convenience.

“Getting people on two-wheelers is much easier than getting people with cars.”

Who Rides the Delhi Metro?

A cursory glance at Delhi’s metro system might suggest this wouldn’t be hard. Unlike equivalent systems in major U.S. cities, such as New York and Washington, D.C., Delhi’s metro is sleek, sophisticated, and fast, fully equipped with top-notch equipment and trains that run on time.

And to be clear, many people are already using it. The system’s cumulative ridership exceeded 1 billion people during India’s most recent fiscal year, a number that could be broken down to 2.76 million riders a day. But very few of those riders come from the city’s most affluent classes.

According to a survey conducted by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) last year, less than 2 percent of metro riders earn more than 100,000 rupees (about $1,540) a month. Defining classes of income levels is notoriously tricky in India, but by using the standards set by Pew in 2015, those earning more than 100,000 rupees a month can be categorized as high-income.

Passengers in an all-women compartment of a Delhi Metro train in 2013 (Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters)

Even when one looks at one income level below that, ridership isn’t high. Those earning 50,000 to 100,000 rupees a month (about $770–$1,540) make up less than 10 percent of Delhi Metro riders. Most of these people would be upper-middle income by Pew’s standards.

These numbers fit with the events of January 2016, when many affluent Delhiites bemoaned a 15-day partial car ban and, in some cases, found ways around it to avoid taking public transportation. India’s then-Chief Justice even went so far as to suggest more expensive “premium” seats as a way to lure more wealthy commuters onto the metro.

The aversion of some rich Delhiites to public transportation is no surprise to many others in the city, who are fully aware of its starkly drawn class lines. “I go on the metro, I’m a poor person. … But why would a rich person go on it, in the middle of all the crowds? They’ll hire a car or taxi or take their own car,” said Jitender, an Uber driver who works in Delhi’s National Capital Region.

Just last month, though, a few hundred relatively affluent residents of Gurgaon—a city within Delhi’s National Capital Region—tried to buck the trend, participating in a Car Free Week.*

“We can complain about crop burning, we can complain about everything else,” said Manas Fuloria, a 45-year-old software company CEO who participated in the initiative. “But if we won’t forgo these large diesel SUVs that we want to buy because we feel a petrol car won’t be right, or a smaller car won’t do the job, then we shouldn’t be surprised when a farmer thinks it’s okay to burn their fields for one or two days in the year.” (Diesel cars accounted for 27 percent of cars sold in India in the 2016–2017 fiscal year. In Delhi, diesel vehicles that are more than 10 years old were recently banned.)

Missing Infrastructure

If the Car Free Week indicated that some affluent Indians are willing to change their transportation patterns, it also served as a reminder of the absence of infrastructure supporting them in doing so.

For years, Fuloria made a point of cycling to work a few times a week, despite how unsafe the ride could be. But he hasn’t cycled regularly this year due to roadwork that has made his route twice as long and less safe. Fuloria also complains that there are few operational buses in Gurgaon, and none that would get him anywhere close to work.

Delhi’s bus system hardly meets public demand, either. In 2007, the Delhi High Court mandated the city have 11,000 buses. But when the smog hit last month, Delhi’s bus fleet was just over 5,000. No buses have been added since 2010.

Although the city’s metro system may be world-class, it’s never going to be as convenient as door-to-door ride-hailing apps like Uber, which recently claimed to have surpassed 500 million rides in India, or its Indian rival Ola. Such options are especially attractive in Delhi, where the metro’s “last mile” connectivity—how people actually get to and from Metro stations—is a particular problem.

This is due in part to a lack of high-quality sidewalks, a major impediment to pedestrian culture in the city. Bike lanes, where they exist, are also generally problematic, either by design or because they end up usurped by cars, motorbikes, or even street vendors.

Infrastructure for vehicles continues to be built, however, which Bhatt believes sends off the wrong signal. “We are promoting the use of private transport by giving more flyovers, by widening roads, by giving free parking,” he said. “If you have a car, you are treated like a king. If you come by bus or metro, then you are a second-grade citizen.”

Ultimately, some say it’s a combination of factors—Delhi’s existing transportation infrastructure as well as people’s considerations of class and status—that keeps the city’s most affluent away from public transit.

“Delhi is very much a city that’s aspirational … that’s very aware of upward mobility and status and class,” said Mukta Naik, who focuses on urban planning at the Centre for Policy Research, a leading Indian think-tank. “But at the same time, [people] also see the car as the most convenient way to get from Point A to Point B. … Until we reach a point where we cannot get from point A to Point B without public transport, we’re going to be like this.”

Nair and Bhatt both talk about disincentivizing the use of private transportation through policies like higher parking fees, congestion and pollution charges, and a cap on vehicle registrations. But for now, they’re encouraged by what they’ve seen through initiatives like the Car Free Week, which they feel is a sign that the mindsets of the affluent can be changed.

“There are people who have gotten away from a car-centric mindset and they’re willing to really make an effort to change,” said Bhatt. “But for them to make a permanent change, they need some infrastructural support.”

*CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the timing of Gurgaon’s Car Free Week. It was held November 20–26.

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