Planners and policy makers in India must focus on ‘uncongested mobility’ than on reducing actual congestion caused by vehicular traffic. ‘Mobility and Congestion in Urban India’, a research paper found that there is not actually that much congestion across urban India.
The paper’s authors revealed that urbanization and rapid growth don’t have to lead to a gridlock. Economic development can bring better infrastructure and also improve mobility. The authors said that India does have a ‘big mobility problem’. “And it is not congestion but other hurdles like bad roads, bad design and potholes that slow people down. As such, vehicle speeds within the cities showed little variation at different hours of the day – rush hour or not.” Differences in urban mobility or traffic speeds vary widely across large cities. According to the study, Chandigarh is a ‘particularly fast city’, while Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal is a ‘particularly slow city’. Another interesting finding is that mobility is better in cities with a more grid-like network such as in Chandigarh.
The study also noted that travel is generally slow in Indian cities, even outside peak hours. “Even the central part of Chicago – considered a slow city and one of the most congested locations in the United States, is generally faster than one of the fastest Indian cities – Chandigarh,” the paper says. The researchers also found that traffic is slower in denser or more populated Indian cities. “Such cities display a hill-shaped relationship between city per capita income and mobility, which means that even as per capital income rises, mobility tends to rise up to a point, after which it declines; and this means a city’s mobility is related to characteristics of its road network and not income levels.”
The study brought forth that wide variations in mobility across Indian cities are primarily due to uncongested mobility, not congestion. It says that congestion pricing would have little impact. “That’s why a 10 per cent improvement in uncongested mobility, could bring more gains than implementing congestion pricing in urban India.” Moreover, it gives an example of Varanasi which is slower than average at times, even at night in the absence of traffic. The authors say its not entirely clear as to why urban India has slow mobility in the middle of the day or later in the day. “In most parts of the world when traffic is slow, it is because there are lots of vehicles. In India, you have many users on the roads – not just vehicles, but those that use them for parking, for selling and consuming stuff, children playing and animals, which is a nontrivial issue.” The paper challenges conventional wisdom that traffic congestion is the main reason why some cities are slow and some fast. It describes Kolkata as the least congested compared to Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai, however, it is also the slowest because of low uncongested mobility.
The study says that this distinction has important policy implications because uncongested speed cannot be improved by congestion pricing, ride-sharing promotion or restriction or other policies often proposed to combat congestion.