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Vol. XXIX No. 20 , February 1-15, 2020

City Traffic and Ways to Keep it in Control

by A Special Correspondent

If God were to offer one gift relating to our city, to be granted instantly upon asking, there is a high probability that many of us would want a noise-free, pollution-free, smooth movement of traffic and pedestrians on the roads. A sample of such peace on the roads can be experienced on the days of flash strikes by auto-rickshaws. That is some indication of the role of autos in traffic chaos.

It feels good to see the on-going activity of the Chennai Corporation and the Police authorities to clear the streets to make them safer. Nearly 11,000 abandoned vehicles, which were no longer in working condition but were occupying public space, have been cleared. The resultant sales proceeds of over Rs. 3 crores was given to the Police department for improving road conditions and traffic discipline. Such a drive is commendable and should not remain a one-time activity as, by itself, it will not check continued dumping. Preventive measures backed by enforcement are necessary to stop such vandalism.

Without a centralised recycling hub – where old vehicles are shredded, their spare parts stripped and remaining shells cubed – people may not know how to dispose of their unwanted vehicles. A recycling centre that charges a fee for its services would remove that excuse.

The re-laying of 33,000 interior roads and 471 bus routes seems imminent as the clearing of abandoned vehicles was meant to remove this impediment to commencing reconstruction work. There is no mention of modernising pedestrian sidewalks as part of the road reconstruction programme. It is now an opportune time to construct walking paths and bicycle tracks and protect them from encroachment by vehicles and road-side vendors. The residual space should be set aside for vehicular traffic even if such order of priority calls for re-directing traffic flow and identifying more one-way stretches.

Fines have now been raised substantially to increase the cost of traffic violations. These now attract a fine of Rs. 500 against the old penalty of Rs. 100. Disobeying orders given by the traffic police now attracts a fine of Rs. 2,000; the old penalty was Rs. 500. Though this may initially have some effect, in the longer run, chronic violators will find out that the high fine is “real” only if it is enforced. They will also understand that higher fines will not eliminate bribes but raise the bribe rate correspondingly while retaining it as a cheaper alternative to paying the fine. Higher fines and, therefore, higher bribes are more attractive for the dishonest ones among the policemen. They might look for more opportunities to “book” violators.

Booking more violators may seem like fulfilling the objective of deterring violations – except that the revenue goes to individuals of the police force and not to the government. So what, if the deterrent effect is achieved? After all, proceeds of fines are not meant to be a major revenue source to the government. In that case, why not regularise this practice and pluck out its moral content? At one time, Karnataka experimented with a coupon system. Policemen levy fines which go to the credit of a police welfare fund. High fines tend to make private settlement attractive; so, reducing the fines and introducing the police welfare system seems an option deserving considersation.
If traffic reform is to have a material and lasting impact, it must correct certain critical impediments.

One: A rational lane allocation must be in position. Enforcing the present system – every lane for every type of vehicle – would only institutionalise chaos. The original time-tested system must be revived – bicycles and pedestrians on the left most lane, duly protected, the next lane to its right for two and three wheelers, the next for buses and trucks and the last for cars, combining the last two on narrow roads. This is a rational, universally adopted order of precedence for the right of road-space. It was followed in Chennai until it got deformed over the years. It allots lane space according to speed and chassis occupancy of road space and avoids mixing slow and fast vehicles or narrow and broad vehicles.

Two: In Chennai, there are about 50 lakh motorised vehicles with 8-10 per cent new ones added every year. Of this, about 75 per cent are motorised two-wheelers. That is a virtual explosion of traffic density every year. Until the day two-wheeler users adopt public transport services, there is little hope of Chennai seeing peace on the roads. The Metro could be the answer. The Metro’s moves to increase daily ridership has seen some response. Traffic did improve to a little over one lakh a day, but this is nowhere near the daily capacity of even the present limited stretch. Surface traffic of two and three-wheelers must be the target segment of focus for the Metro.

The Metro’s pricing must aim at equating, if possible, or, being slightly higher, if unavoidable, to the cost of commuting for two-wheeler users. This pricing strategy will rapidly increase ridership and fill the bogies, increasing total revenue and improving Metro’s bottom line. Besides matching current commuting costs, there must be some form of certainty to two-wheeler users that their Metro rates would continue to be protected, consistent with fuel costs. They need this assurance to take an investment decision – take back the capital by discarding the vehicle, or save capital by not buying one. If this plan succeeds, and when the full network of the Metro is completed speedily, we could see a massive shift of two-wheeler and auto users to the Metro, resulting in a sea change on the roads. Two-wheeler manufacturers may encounter a falling demand. A dire picture of a economic slow-down will be painted. This shift is a step in the right direction to a more cost and time effective way of commuting for most people, giving rise to better reach for job opportunities, more savings, more free time and less pollution.

Three: The image of the policeman needs a makeover. If the service at the local Primary Health Centre or teaching in the government school is poor, people, thankfully, have the option of going to a private source. For traffic management services, there is no private source. So, we must make the policemen effective. Decades ago, the policeman was used by mothers to frighten children into eating properly or doing the homework in time. Now, his image is changed to that of a dud or bribe taker. Traffic violations of every rule happen right under their noses every day, everywhere. People know that the police dare not book violations when party flags and influential connections are there to over-rule the policeman to “protect” offenders. Another common excuse for disregard of the police is that they are corrupt. This is the refrain of taxi and auto drivers who use that as a justification for desecrating traffic norms.

Political interference, indiscriminate post-action probes and demonization weaken the police force day by day. Police must be able to book offenders without fear or favour. To have a deterrent effect, he must be authorised to dispense punishment for breach in a transparent manner. This can happen only with the recognition that policemen are the arm of Law, placed at the very frontline in the battle for conformity with rules and that they are there to protect us from chaos on city roads. A respectable image of the police as a protective force is a basic requisite for a civilised society. Infrastructure, equipment and rules do not work by themselves to manage traffic or maintain law and order.

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