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5 propositions for fixing India’s roads

April 30, 2014 by

5 propositions for fixing India’s roads

Despite a surge in the number of automobiles plying on city roads causing increasing congestion, transport planning in cities has been neither comprehensive nor visionary.  Rather than building integrated public transport systems, governments in India have resorted to temporary solutions, such as building flyovers and widening roads.  What we need are policies that integrate land use and transportation, maintain existing road infrastructure, and build and encourage the use of public and non-motorised transport. The following are five urgent policy propositions for fixing India’s roads.

  1. Decentralise transport planning to the city level.

Traffic congestion is a subject best handled by cities, but transport is a state subject in the Indian Constitution. As a result, decisions, policies, and initiatives pertaining to transport fall under the jurisdiction of state governments rather than cities. Unfortunately, state transport policies are generalised and are not attuned to local issues. This is problematic because transport policy and planning play a big role in the way cities shape and grow. Road transport, particularly public transportation, caters to a large user base and is often a city’s lifeline. But the increasing choice of vehicle options and the resulting congestion on roads has complicated the transport matrix. Considering the growing complexity, it is necessary to decentralise the decision making from the state to a local transport authority.

  1. Connect land use and transport planning.

The proposal for a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) in Chennai, first proposed in 2008, is still a draft bill. Unfortunately, the bill does not unify landuse and transportation, both of which are clearly closely interlinked. Indeed, these two components of the city are monitored by different agencies in all cities in the country, with the exception of Bangalore. This lack of coordination between the transport and development authorities has led to an unplanned sprawl in most cities, made worse by land speculation and encroachment. While the UMTA will help in holistically planning across existing road departments and newer transport investments like metros, monorails, and bus rapid transit systems, the UMTA must also reach out to the metropolitan development authority to bridge the gap between land development and transport.

  1. Make larger vehicles pay more in taxes.

In the past, a part of your property tax was used to build and maintain the roads in urban areas. Since 2000, road maintenance is funded by the Central Road Fund, which receives contributions from the central government’s sales taxes and excise duties, and state governments’ road taxes.

However, people have been flouting these taxes by buying vehicles in states with lower road taxes but using them in states with higher rates. To avoid this, the central government has proposed a uniform tax rate across the country. The centre is proposing that state governments to standardise the road tax at a floor rate of 6% of the showroom price of a vehicle before the value added tax.[1]

However, such a measure will have some strange implications. Since we currently have a progressive road tax bracket (where luxury vehicles are taxed at a higher rate) this proposition would mean a big relief for buyers of expensive vehicles. It will also mean that two-wheelers, which currently pay only 4% or lesser of their value as road tax will have to pay more to fill in for the revenue lost in selling luxurious vehicles. Since luxury vehicles tend to be the largest on the road, a uniform road tax would also mean that the government is implicitly encouraging the use of bigger cars over smaller and more fuel efficient ones, a foolhardy strategy!

  1. Create strict parking policies – and enforce these rules!

Considering the larger goals of the National Urban Transport policy (NUTP), the design of the roads and transport systems should be in the interest of the larger public and inclined towards reducing use of private vehicles. One outcome of the increased use of private vehicles are parking problems, as people tend to park on the sides of the road without facing any penalties. This adds pressure to the existing road, which often already functions at less than its carrying capacity due to encroachments and inappropriate street design. Most Development Control Regulations[2] (DCR), the rules that guide land development in most cities, have regulations for how many parking spaces are required for each residence, but roads have not accounted for visitors. Cities need to develop public parking plans, with limited numbers of legal parking spots. Enforcement of such a policy will encourage people to use public transport.

  1. Create incentives for the use of non motorised transport.

The count of walking trips averages around 32%in Chennai.[3] Inspite of this, the state of pedestrian infrastructure in Chennai is extremely poor and inadequate. Chennai has a little over one-tenth of its land use under roads, of which less than 2% have walk-able footpaths.[4] Contrary to the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) which asks cities to prioritize non-motorised transport, cities are not doing so. Calcutta has banned bicycles on many of its main roads and Chennai has banned the cycle rickshaw. But some states are doing better: the state of Punjab is promoting the use of cycle rickshaws in 22 towns, and there is even a public private partnership to make cycle rickshaws a widely used mode of transit.[5] This initiative is more in line with the NUTP policy, but not many states have extended their creativity to initiate inclusive and sustainable modes of transport systems.

Take the example of cycles. India has 90 bicycles for every 1,000 people compared to 149 in China. Yet, rather than improve cycle penetration in the country, the 2% excise duty that was levied in last year’s central government budget made cycles more expensive.[6] The government has made it easier to purchase a motorised vehicle through tax and loan schemes where people need only make a down payment of Rs.2,000. But to purchase a cycle, there are no such initiatives and the complete payment has to be made up front. Moreover, the lack of adequate and well-designed infrastructure places cyclists at a high risk in current traffic conditions, and further discourages the use of this mode of transportation. To truly encourage use of non-motorised transport the cities need to build a network of cycle tracks and usable pavements to make the city more inclusive.

These five propositions, if implemented, will move Indian cities a long way towards being more inclusive, more sustainable, less congested, and safer.

Written by Roshan Toshniwal, researcher, Transparent Chennai

[2]DCR are regulations which all buildings need to abide by to get approval for construction.
[4]Based on data collected by Transparent Chennai from the Corporation of Chennai in March 2011.