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The Motor Traffic Rumble

By Rajiv Rawat

Over the past few weeks, the issue of traffic congestion and road accidents has taken centre stage, not only in Dehradun where the crisis is severe, but also throughout the state where an alarming number of buses have slipped off the roads and into deep khuds this past year. Indeed, in just the past month, road accidents have claimed dozens of lives, while on August 24, 29, 30, and again on September 2, buses plunged into deep gorges on four separate occasions.

Beyond the commonly expressed need for enhanced traffic management and enforcement as these spectacular cases indicate, the crisis on the roads brings to attention a number of interlinked issues of critical importance to the residents of both the cities and rural hills. In addition to reckless driving, the sheer number of motorized vehicles being added to the roads in addition to the increasing size of foreign brand automobiles is certainly having a big impact. These are rendering roads hostile to pedestrians and cyclists alike. While some of the newer vehicles pollute less, the continuing widespread usage of two-stroke engines and aging transport fleets cancel out such advances in pollution control, even as they all collectively increase the ambient temperature of the urban core. The cumulative road congestion further slows traffic to a crawl, defeating any gains made in mobility while dramatically increasing emissions and fuel consumption through motor idling.

Moreover, rather than a positive sign of growing affluence, this increasing dependency on private vehicles represents a style of malignant unplanned development that Indian cities like Dehradun with its bottle-necked city centre, are ill-equipped to handle. Dehradun used to be a walkable city, lush and green, where one could tarry for long periods and come to intimately know the various neighbourhoods. The steady march away from this ideal is one of the worst tragedies to befall this dilapidated city that has already lost much of its charm through urban sprawl and land subdivision. The idyllic Doon days of a generation ago are long gone to the point where even the bare minimum liveability of the city is now at stake!

Yet beyond Dehradun, the motor vehicle menace is a global problem. Some solutions that have gained widespread acceptance in other urban jurisdictions include measures to actively take vehicles off the streets. This entails either encouraging the city’s residents to take collective responsibility to voluntarily restrain their usage of motor vehicles or the municipality employing certain ordinances to enforce traffic reduction. Chinese cities are already trying to address their own “carmageddon” by banning odd-numbered vehicles on odd-numbered days and vice versa for even numbered vehicles. Singapore has come up with a more complicated plan of “congestion pricing” where fees are charged for operating vehicles where road capacity is lacking. More severe measures such as that in London where a stiff fee has been introduced for all vehicles entering city limits are also being contemplated by cities such as New York City.

Usually the flipside of this involves improving access to public transit. However for Dehradun, this could also entail launching a campaign to encourage bicycle use. Based on the simple observation that two-wheeler owners are generally more affluent than hard-pressed but intrepid bicyclists, they could probably do with the exercise. Indeed, it seems more young people in Dehradun have access to motorized vehicles than teenagers in the West who still have to get to school by bus! And for those living close to the city centre, there should be no excuse for taking a vehicle through Clock Tower. Dehradun is small enough to get around on bicycle, and indeed if made safer with night-time lights, could return as the principle mode of getting around the city. However, that’s a “big If” as it would necessarily overturn our idea of comfort and convenience which comes at the expense of the denizens of the inner city who have to inhale the fumes all day, every day.

As for buses in the hills, the problems are as severe, with infrastructure unable to keep up with the increased tourist flow into the state. This year, the police have been particularly hard pressed to manage sometimes rowdy pilgrims during an exceptionally damaging season for mountain roads. As such not all can be laid at the foot of poor drivers, although their breakneck driving speed can certainly leave one with the feeling of life flashing before one’s eyes.

Unfortunately, besides stabilizing slopes and the expensive proposition of expanding lanes on secondary roads, there seems little that can be done other than continuously challenging the “need for speed” attitude through public service advertisements and traffic enforcement. The much touted ADB loan to improve the road infrastructure of the state procured by the last government may in fact only cover one-time basics, once all the maintenance costs are tallied. The imposition of toll roads may help generate the requisite long term revenue (to pay for the loan no less!), although its modalities would have to be worked out to lessen the impact on local users.