Chennai looks at congestion tax to reduce traffic jams

A think-tank study proposes the model that has been successful in London

shivani

Shivani Chaturvedi | September 15, 2015 | Chennai



Chennai is often called the Detroit of India, the motor capital, thanks to the presence of auto industries in the city and nearby areas. However, before the automobiles on the road completely overwhelm the city, it is time the planners prepared a blueprint to ensure smooth city commuting.

A study by a Chennai-based urban  policy research think tank has proposed the congestion tax model as a solution to traffic congestion. The study by Mylapore Institute of Policy Research (MIPR), an independent think tank, states that the traffic in Chennai is similar to that of London in terms of heavy flow throughout the day. Impressed by the manner in which London was able to manage traffic congestion the MIPR has proposed this model.

The congestion tax aims to reduce traffic in the crowded parts of the city and also reduce the pollution level.

But why Chennai? According to a recent study, Chennai has the greatest vehicle density in the country, much higher than those of Delhi and Mumbai.

It is estimated that nearly two lakh vehicles enter central and inner Chennai each day comprising approximately equal levels of commercial and non-commercial traffic. These volumes exclude two- and three-wheelers, government buses, military and emergency service vehicles.

It is estimated that average vehicle speed on Chennai roads is less than 20 kmph during peak periods, and this costs the city an estimated '450 crore annually in terms of increased congestion and commuting delays. For example, the average volume of vehicles carried by Anna Salai was nearly 2 lakh PCU (passenger carriage unit) as against its capacity of 60,000 PCU per day. The volume capacity ratio on many links during peak hours was more than one. In CBD, the V/C ratio was more than 1.5 for most of the road links. The phenomenal growth of vehicles coupled with minimal increase in road space has led to a low speed of 15 kmph in CBD and 20 kmph in other major roads.
MIPR secretary V Balasubramanian says, “In Chennai, the road length is not much. Also, we don’t have pathways. A study by Traffline brings out the advantage of a higher road length in Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai.”

The Traffline study, comparing the vehicular population with road length,  ranked Chennai number one in vehicle density. Normally, Delhi with the highest vehicle population of 73.50 lakh should be ranked first in vehicle emission also. But in real terms Delhi’s vehicle density is only one-tenth of Chennai, thanks to the road network of the national capital.

The MIPR study suggests, as one of the top five Indian metros, coupled with explosive growth in vehicle population, Chennai faces a serious problem of urban congestion. This not only places enormous stress on roads and traffic management but also causes ominous pollution problems.

A simple daily congestion charge on four-wheel vehicles levied on entry to selected zones would be very productive in addressing this serious urban transport problem which impacts a wide range of issues like environmental pollution, work place productivity and public health, the study states.

“We have been in talks with the stakeholders. We had meetings with the state planning commission, transport department, traffic police and Chennai municipal corporation. The purpose of this scheme is to reduce traffic in most areas of the city by promoting public transport,” says Balasubramanian. The congestion charge initiative is in line with the state government’s Vision 2023 which aims at a strategic plan for infrastructure development to move the state to a higher growth plane, said Balasubramanian. 

However, the government is yet to take a decision on it. K Ramakrishnan, industries power transport (IPT) head, state planning commission, says, “As of now the congestion tax model is at the conceptual level. A study has been proposed by a think tank and a presentation based on the London model was made in April.”

Congestion tax on ground


Two zones have been earmarked in Chennai: central and super zones. These zones have high levels of traffic volumes. The study suggests that congestion tax could be restricted to a central zone extending from Purasawalkam to Thiruvanmiyur, and in T Nagar that has been identified as a super zone. It is proposed that signboards be placed at 66 entry and exit points (central and super zones) and up to 15 kms on the main roads into the relevant area. There will be a comprehensive network of road markings on zone boundaries and within zone.

Vehicle registration numbers will be observed by a network of cameras strategically located to capture the licence plate details of an entering motorist once during the operating hours to either the central zone or super zone. It is proposed that charges of '20 for non-commercial vehicles and '30 for commercial vehicles will apply once daily. There will not be any charges for multiple entries. The charges would be operational from Monday to Saturday from 6 am to 7 pm and will apply to both the central and the super zones.

The study has proposed the payments channels which include pre-paid cash cards, mobile and automatic payment by direct bank settlement. 

The primary investment in this tax model will be in the network of cameras, and based on the extent of the network considered for both the zones it could come to '100-150 crore. However, this investment will be recouped from the surplus revenues generated within two or three years after funding essential reinvestment programmes. The study further says that in Chennai the traffic police department did consider a few years ago an integrated traffic management system (ITMS) with an elaborate system of cameras and software. Senior officials of the state government are of the view that the proposed objectives of the ITMS could well be revived in the context of congestion charging system for the city. 

Key challenges

Designing a congestion tax model is not easy. Some cities like London and Singapore have done it well. Some others like New York and Hong Kong tried it and failed because of opposition from public, says Raj Cherubal, director (projects) of the Chennai City Connect.

Depending on which part of the city gains and which loses, public may or may not support it. “Also this requires sophistication on part of the city – like running an advanced parking management system that involves high levels of monitoring, fining, alternate route planning, etc.,” he says. Needless to add, consensus is needed among stakeholders including shopkeepers and residents covered in the congestion tax zone, to make it a success.

Solving traffic problems in any city will require many carrots and sticks. Carrots like a high quality public transport system with high capacity, mass, rapid transit system like metro rail and bus rapid transit system (BRTS), also a city-wide system of buses, and para-transit like taxi, auto and share-auto, are required, suggests Cherubal. Sticks include a good parking management system, tolls, and of course congestion tax. “So congestion tax is one of the important tools to solve the problem. Without both carrots and sticks, shift in mode – from private transport to public transport – will not happen at the level to increase the quality of life of our city,” he adds.

The MIPR study has recommended a programme to update motor vehicle ownership records at the regional transport office (RTO), particularly in timely updating of records on change of vehicle ownership. This can be considered in parallel with the implementation period and some of the revenues generated could be earmarked to update the vehicle ownership records. This would help making implementation of congestion tax model more effective. 

shivani@governancenow.com

(The article appears in the September 1-15, 2015 issue)

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