Blueprint to tackle traffic

New blueprint to tackle traffic

Jan 06 2009

A congestion-charging scheme was introduced in London. This resulted in a 26 per cent reduction in average congestion levels in central London. It also generated an estimated £123 million revenue in 2006-07

By Roopen Roy

Excessive dependence on personal modes of transportation causes unacceptable congestion and traffic jams in modern cities. Apart from causing inconvenience to people, a large volume of traffic has an adverse environmental impact. Finding adequate capital for financing an efficient public transport system (which, in turn, can reduce the dependence on personal modes of transport) is more often than not a challenge. There are social and political pressures on keeping the public transportation system affordable, and that makes financing, without subsidies, a challenge.

The City of London innovated to create a solution that cut congestion, and at the same time, generated revenues to finance the improvement of London’s transport infrastructure.

A congestion-charging scheme was introduced in London. This resulted in a 26 per cent cut in average congestion levels in central London. It also generated an estimated £123 million in 2006-07, which was re-invested in transport improvements across London. In the first four years, the net revenues exceeded £300 million.

The London congestion charge is a fee for some motorists travelling within those parts of London designated as the congestion charge zone (CCZ). The main objectives of this charge are to reduce congestion and to raise funds for investment in London’s transport system. It remains one of the largest in the world. Worldwide, several cities have studied the London scheme when considering their own possible schemes. The scheme uses CCTV and automatic number plate recognition system.

While the idea was simple and powerful, its implementation was not a cakewalk. The project involved the deployment of more than 600 cameras at 174 entry/exit points across a 21 sq km area. Nearly 200,000 vehicles were monitored and charged daily. It involved touching 20 organisations and generating 16,000 tasks. These cameras were capable of processing number plates automatically and secure broadband lines were used to pass evidential records from cameras to the core computer system.

The core philosophy behind the Mayor of London’s initiative was: those who own cars and create congestion should pay for improvement of public transport and containment of environment pollution. It is more equitable than an across-the-board tax.

Cities such as Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Gurgaon and Kolkata are extremely congested and instead of charging across the board taxes or offering huge subsidies, which again are inequitable and untargeted, “congestion fees” must be considered as an option. Applying the innovation is fine but its replication must be well thought out and adapted to our situation.

Even in London, a myriad group of powerful stakeholders contributed more to the complexity of the solution than the technological components. By its very nature, the initiative had high visibility. The vigilant media was only one of the powerful stakeholders. The political, social, environmental and technological challenges were significant. In any major city in India, these challenges would be formidable in nature. Transparency, good governance and clear communications would be as important as building a consensus of citizens, chambers of commerce, NGOs and government agencies.

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal for a similar congestion charge as part of his vaunted PlaNY 2030 ran into rough weather. Singapore and Stockholm are examples of other cities, however, which have successfully implemented their own versions of the solution.

The technology solution in London was a relatively sophisticated one: The scheme makes use of CCTV cameras to record vehicles entering and exiting the zone. Cameras can record number plates with a high degree of accuracy through automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology. There are also a number of mobile camera units, which may be deployed anywhere in the zone. The majority of vehicles within the zone are captured on camera. The cameras take two still pictures in colour and black and white and use infrared technology to identify the number plates.

These identified numbers are checked against the list of payees overnight by computer. In those cases, when a number plate has not been recognised then they are checked manually. Those that have paid but have not been seen in the central zone are not refunded and those that have not paid and are seen are heavily fined. The registered owner of such a vehicle is looked up in a database provided by the driver vehicle licensing agency. Since it was implemented in London some five years ago, there have been giant strides in every component of the technological solution. A city like Bangalore, which suffers from traffic congestion and which is the home to technology savvy companies, can take the lead in producing a technologically superior solution at a fraction of the cost. If it succeeds in implementing it, as it likely to, other cities in India and outside may replicate the solution more widely.

Although primarily targeted at reducing “jams” and “congestion”, studies have shown that there are improvements in other areas as well. In all, 22 per cent of London’s carbon dioxide emissions were caused by the traffic — this has come down. In India, the congestion charge may factor in an emission-based weight for vehicles –thus making those who “congest” and “pollute” bear a larger burden of the cost of cleaning up. In a new year, let’s think new.