Could congestion charges transform Bangalore?

Carlin Carr, Bangalore Community Manager
Bangalore, 2 July 2015

Massive car growth has become a major issue across India's booming metropolises. Bangalore is no exception. Once known as the "Green City," the country's IT hub has faced rapid population growth that has brought a rise in cars so overwhelming to the city's infrastructure that rush hours have turned into parking lots that snake the city streets. In just three years, between 2008 and 2011, a 32-minute rush-hour commute jumped from 30 minutes to 50 — that's a more than 50 percent slowdown. Experts predict it's only going to get worse: by 2030, traffic around the urban streets of Bangalore could be crawling at just 10 kilometers an hour unless serious measures are taken to curb car growth or make it expensive to use them.

In 2011, Bangalore's Directorate of Urban Land Transport proposed a congestion charge — a measure that has helped cities from London to Singapore get commuters to leave their cars at home. "Improvements in public transport are required, but at some point, we also have to put in place travel demand measures. Congestion pricing is one of those measures," she said. This wasn't the first time Bangalore had considered such measures, and many cities around India are similarly weighing these types of car taxes to ease congestion, reduce pollution, and entice people to use public transportation more.

Urban India has seen how other cities around Asia and all over the world have successfully managed to change how people travel every day. In 1975, Singapore became the first city in the world to implement a congestion charge when officials fortressed off an area of the Central Business District with 33 checkpoints. Only an expensive pass would get them through during heavy traffic times. Almost immediately, a shift happened: commuters turned to city buses or started carpooling (cars with three or more people were exempt). Traffic speeds increased and commuter times dropped. The experiment has grown into a sophisticated Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system, which now automatically calculates drivers' fees according to when and where they choose to drive.

The lesson for Indian cities such as Bangalore is that even with an increase in GDP and urban populations, car growth doesn't have to follow. But implementing car-curbing measures can be challenging. Despite the obvious benefits of congestion charges, they can be politically unpopular. In India, the congestion fees have been on the table for years in cities across the country, but not a single metro has implemented one. "There is also no consensus on how the tax will be collected, which areas will be designated as 'restricted' and how evaders will be fined," said an article on the issue.

If Bangalore is to recapture its former glory as the "Green City," it will need to make some hard — and perhaps, at first, unpopular — decisions about car usage in the city. In order to do that, however, the city will also need to be sure there are sound alternatives. Public transportation is a major necessity in Bangalore, and the much-anticipated metro has been delayed by almost two years. It is now set to open Phase 1 to commuters by December 2015.

The metro will be a good start in expanding the potpourri of commuting options, but getting people to use it might mean making the alternative — getting in the car — a cost-prohibitive choice. It might not be easy, but lessons from Singapore show it's not just the streets that open up but an entirely new way of interacting with the city. That in itself might be enough to start getting urban India to think differently.

Photo credit: Eirik Refsdal

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