Traffic is a trickle, parking woes few and far between, and pedestrians are gleeful they don’t have to hold a handkerchief to their faces.
This, it seems, is the new New Delhi, six days after the government implemented an audacious experiment banning more than a million cars from the streets in an effort to deal with a thick blanket of smog in the world’s most polluted city.
Sounds promising, right?
Theoretically, yes. In reality, it’s not so clear.
“If you are eliminating half of the cars on the roads, you will see reductions in emissions and improvement in air quality,” said Marianne Hatzopoulou, an expert on vehicle emissions and air pollution at the University of Toronto. The problem with these experiments is there are always exceptions and those “can totally offset reduction in emissions.”
Encouraging people to take public transport by preventing them from driving isn’t the best way to introduce sustainability or reduce pollution, she said. “You have to first invest in good transit before you start penalizing drivers.”
The New Delhi experiment started on New Year’s Day. For two weeks drivers have alternating access to the roads between 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Cars with odd-numbered plates are allowed on streets on odd days, and vice-versa on even days. Sundays are exempt. So are women, politicians, judges and sick people. Motorcycles and taxi cabs are also exempt.
Violators — hundreds, so far — have been fined about $42.
The ban is aggressive and drastic but it had to be done, said Anumita Roychowdhury, head of the air pollution control unit at the non-profit Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.
“It’s an emergency measure,” she said, adding the city’s air quality has oscillated between “very poor” and “hazardous” for most of November and December.
Last year, the World Health Organization named New Delhi the world’s most polluted city. Pollution is traditionally worse in winter, when winds die down, air gets trapped and smog engulfs the city in the early morning and stays for hours. Flights are often grounded or rerouted. Traffic on streets comes to a halt. Schools are temporarily closed.
The first few days of the odd-even experiment have shown that even though there is a buildup of smog at night — when poor people light fires — it has cleared quickly, said Roychowdhury.
The other positive outcome, she said, is that it has increased the efficiency of public transport. “Traffic jams are gone … buses are moving faster and easier. They are finally keeping their schedules.”
(On Wednesday, a New Delhi court said the experiment was causing inconvenience to the people due to inadequate public transport and ordered the government to submit data for the first week so that the impact of the ban could be assessed.)
New Delhi’s debilitating air pollution is a major health risk: doctors there have pointed at evidence that toxic particles in the air are hampering children’s growth, causing reduced lung function and responsible for thousands of preventable deaths.
It has been called a public health crisis.
Experiments like this one aren’t permanent solutions to the pollution conundrum, said Hatzopoulou.
“Invest in transit infrastructure, educate people to not rely on cars and to use public transit.”
If the ban becomes semi-permanent or is implemented on a regular basis, people will adapt by either buying another car or changing the licence plate numbers. Cab companies will multiply their fleets.
“There are lots of rebound effects,” she said.
In New Delhi, it is already happening: a side industry to supply fake number plates has sprung up, according to reports, while the city’s richer residents have bought second cars with an alternate number plate to sidestep the ban.
Other cities, mixed results
New Delhi’s attempt to reduce its debilitating air pollution isn’t a new idea. Other cities have tried variations, with different results.
Just before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world, banned cars on by licence plate — just like in New Delhi. During the games, airborne particulate matter concentrations fell by 20 per cent, but that was also attributed to shuttering of factories and industries — and some well-timed rain. The city has implemented the odd-even number rule on and off since then.
But like other licence plate based schemes, the ban has prompted drivers to buy second cars and has only had a limited impact on air pollution.
In March 2014, Paris implemented an odd-even ban. But it was halted after a single day when the then ecology minister said the experiment had been successful and majority of Parisians had co-operated. He said the government decided against extending it because the weather conditions were improving. Experts said a day was not enough to know if pollution levels had decreased.
In September 2015, cars were completely banned from Paris streets for one day in the lead up to the climate change summit.
Just a few days ago, Naples became the latest Italian city to ban cars after high levels of particle pollution were recorded in an unusually dry, smoggy winter. Police were brought in to enforce the ban from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — and those who broke the rules face stiff fines. The mayor encouraged people to get around on public transport or by bicycle. The Naples ban followed similar ones in Milan and Rome.
It was revoked after rains lashed the city on Monday,
Mexico City, Mexico
From 1984 to 1993, Mexico City restricted the use of vehicles once a week. Cars with number plates ending in 7 or 8 were banned every Tuesday, those with 5 or 6 weren’t allowed on the streets on Monday, etc. The rule was in place for almost a decade. Studies suggest it didn’t help in the long run, and pollution actually increased over time. Car owners, the studies said, bought another car to beat the ban.
In 1992, Mexico City was declared the planet’s most polluted city by the United Nations.