Pollution as a PR opportunity


Partnering with ride-hailing apps is no solution to problems posed by unclean air and congestion

Last Friday, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal described the city as a ‘gas chamber’. On Monday, Uber launched ‘#LeaveYourCarBehind’ to “help Delhi breathe again”. The message of support from Uber was uncomfortably at odds with the threat it presents to public transport and pollution. The dangerously high pollution had been reduced to a PR opportunity for ride-hailing apps.

Studies have blamed industry, road dust, vehicle smog, geography and the yearly crop burning by farmers for Delhi’s air pollution. As the Supreme Court steps in to address a situation that “could not be allowed in a civilised country”, the Delhi government continues to embrace PR-focussed regulation and refrains from implementing long-term solutions. For example, making public transport free for women and restricting parking are no substitute for unpopular moves like congestion tax, low-emission charge and quotas on motor vehicle sales — solutions that have worked in Beijing and London. Partnerships with ride-hailing apps, though, fall firmly into a category of their own — unproven solutions that probably don’t make things better and are likely to make things worse.

Complement or competitor?

Take, for instance, the fact that Uber was recently introduced as the government’s ‘first-mile, last-mile’ partner. Delhi’s network, the largest in India, currently only reaches half its residents. There is no evidence that Uber pick-up areas at Metro stations will help solve this issue. Kansas City and Centennial, two U.S. towns, cancelled their partnerships with Uber due to low demand and high costs. While demand for Uber’s last-mile services in Delhi is hard to estimate, its incentives are likely to be misaligned given that it has all but admitted in North America that public transport is its direct competitor (a competition it might even be winning).

Researchers at the University of Kentucky found in 2018 that ridership had declined by about 1.5% per annum for both rail and bus services after the introduction of ride-hailing apps. Uber as a ‘complement’ to public transit in Delhi seems ominous — one wonders how quickly it will supplant the system, while lowering government accountability in strengthening buses and shuttle networks.

The odd-even scheme by the Delhi government is another grey area. The programme itself has been shown to increase pollution when enacted permanently, leading to the purchase of cheaper, and high-pollution second vehicles. Even on a temporary basis, the effects of it in January and April 2016 were non-existent as per Delhi Pollution Committee data.

The incentive-misalignment in Uber and Ola being branded as part of a superfluous programme adds insult to injury. They have claimed to be supporting the government by promising not to raise surge pricing and a publicised campaign. However, by keeping prices low, they are effectively discouraging residents from using public transport and keeping more taxis on the road — killing the very objective of the anti-pollution programme. The ‘shared mobility’ service they hope to popularise was found to be worse than regular taxi options in a 2018 study, because they were found to be direct competitors to public transit.

Traffic congestion is another area where Uber’s incentives could be a problem for the Delhi government. In Delhi, 25% of the winter pollution problem is found to be due to vehicles on the road, and congestion during peak hours in the top four cities is estimated to cost the Indian economy ₹1.47 lakh crore annually. A recent study in San Francisco attributed more than half of its 60% rise in congestion since 2010 to ride-sharing apps. Uber and Ola, who make their living by putting cars on the road, make for interesting bedfellows for the current government as it struggles with what is a very real congestion issue.

Mohini Bishnoi is pursuing Master of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School


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Printable version | Dec 14, 2019 2:23:46 PM |

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