Carpool for cleaner air

High-occupancy toll lanes will combat air pollution and foster a more disciplined driving culture

April 17, 2017 12:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:45 pm IST

Getty Images/iStock

Getty Images/iStock

Air pollution in India causes at least a million deaths annually. In Delhi alone, over 30,000 people die every year due to air pollution, the main causes of which are increasing road traffic and factory pollutants, and crop and waste burning.

While the Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government undertook several measures at the end of 2016 such as shutting down thermal power stations for 10 days and prohibiting construction activities temporarily, air pollution has been on the rise. This is because most of these measures were temporary, aimed at combating the deadly haze that had enveloped the city at that time.

The odd-even (licence number) scheme undertaken by the government during the first half of 2016 was one of the most ambitious. However, despite the initiative, general air pollution in the city, which is measured by PM2.5 rose by 15% and 23% during the first and second phase of the odd-even rule, respectively. This raises some important concerns regarding the current policy on tackling air pollution. While there are no easy answers, we need to look for new solutions.

A case for HOT lanes

One such solution is the creation of high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes. This refers to reserving one or more lanes on selected roads and highways for cars carrying more than a single occupant. This ensures that single-occupancy vehicles are restricted to the remaining lanes, thereby making the HOT lanes relatively faster (also through relaxation of speed limits for these lanes). While this was pioneered in the U.S. in 1969, its effective implementation in other countries such as China and Indonesia has encouraged millions of commuters to opt for car-sharing as it ensured them a speedier and less costly journey.

The success of this idea is exemplified by a 2005 report in the U.S., which revealed that two lanes with the high-occupancy vehicles 3+ (HOV 3+) facility between 6.30 and 9.30 a.m. saw a total of 31,700 people in 8,600 vehicles (3.7 persons/vehicle), while the remaining four general purpose lanes carried 23,500 people in 21,300 vehicles (1.1 persons/vehicle). Moreover, the average travel time in the HOV lanes was 29 minutes, as against the 64 minutes in the general lanes. In India, however, such an idea is still far from being imagined; in Delhi, for instance, there exists no policy in relation to car-pooling till date.

There is also a greater cultural issue. Critics highlight that given India’s peculiar disregard for lane-driving, the implementation of HOT or HOV lanes seems to be a long shot. However, the effective implementation of HOT lanes can provide significant incentive to fostering a more disciplined driving culture.

Of course, its implementation would require important considerations relating to whether it should be enforced during particular hours, or whether the minimum number of passengers required to avail of the benefit should be two or more, or whether HOT lane commuters will pay a lower road toll or will be completely exempt from it, to name a few. Nevertheless, if we impose significant fines on violators on HOT lanes and strictly monitor the policy by first applying it to limited areas, the results are bound to reduce air pollution by incentivising passengers to carpool.

Also, in India, where most cars carry two-three people on average, it is perhaps preferred to dedicate such HOT or HOV lanes to cars carrying more than three occupants. Completely exempting these lanes from toll or, at the very least, substantially reducing the toll levied on them in relation to other lanes would provide significant incentive to the commuter.

Accordingly, a toll differential system based on the number of car occupants and on the latest pollution check of the vehicle is the need of the hour. In Delhi, like in most metropolitan cities, drivers are supposed to carry a valid pollution under control (PUC) certificate with them. This is based on the Bharat Stage norms (BS) which are based on European regulations. While the latest BS-IV norms are due to be enforced in the whole country from this month onwards, there is no system for differential toll treatment for higher polluting vehicles and trucks.

Therefore, the government should take this into consideration and introduce a differential toll treatment for less polluting and higher occupancy vehicles. Moreover, electric cars or battery electric vehicles should be completely exempt from the toll. This will not only incentivise people to regularly check their vehicle’s pollution, but will also help reduce air pollution.

Armin Rosencranz is professor of law and Raghuveer Nath is a third-year law student, both at the Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana

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