The grim future of cities played out in Paris recently. Smog wrapped the city and air pollution increased beyond safe limits. Pollutants, particularly particulate matter measuring less than 10 micrometre in diameter (PM{-1}{-0}) reached unsafe levels of 180 micrograms per cubic metre, against the WHO’s permissible limit of 50 micrograms per cubic metre (24-hour mean). Though bad weather contributed to this high concentration, the principal cause, as is often the case, was increased fuel emission. The city authorities had to take drastic steps to reduce pollution since prolonged inhaling of particulate matter would cause respiratory diseases, lung cancer and cardiovascular ailments. They imposed restrictions on the use of cars, permitting vehicles with odd and even number plates to ply only on alternate dates and encouraging shared use of cars. People were allowed to use buses, Metro rail and other public transport, besides shared bicycles, free of charge during weekends. The reasoning was that restrictions and incentives would encourage commuters to shift to public transport, thus reducing pollution. Initial reports indicated that these measures worked, and congestion had come down by 60 per cent. Free use of public transport cost the city about $5.5 million a day, but considering the public-health interest it was a necessary investment.

There is a lesson or two here for Indian cities. The Central Pollution Control Board has listed more than 70 cities that have violated ambient air quality standards. Places such as Delhi and Ludhiana have unacceptable levels of PM{-1}{-0}— 198 and 259 micrograms per cubic metre respectively. Mitigation efforts thus far have been limited to improving the fuel efficiency of vehicles. Enhancing emission norms is necessary, but equally critical is the need to increase the use of public transport. Delhi is a case in point. The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority for the Delhi region, in a recent report, stated that all gains made by converting buses and three-wheelers to Compressed Natural Gas have been lost to a rapid increase in the number of private vehicles. The level of particulate matter has increased substantially over the years. Though various urban policies have stated that public transport is a priority, on the ground, investments have not matched intentions. The modal share of public transport has steadily declined in the large cities. It is only in recent years that State governments are trying to increase transport options by building metro rail networks. This alone may not deliver. Integrating city functions with transport plans and encouraging non-motorised transport such as cycling are also critical. The future of Indian cities is inextricably tied to the improvement of public transport.