The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and such a road may be emerging from the Delhi government’s well-intentioned executive order allowing cars with odd- or even-numbered licence plates on the road every alternate day. There are several problems with this approach.

First, this is a great way to force people to buy another car to get an alternate licence plate and the freedom to move about. Second, middle-class citizens with a single car will be hard hit. Elderly citizens who hire drivers and pay a monthly salary won’t be able to use them for half the month. Third, the ban ignores the fact that this model has failed to find long-term solutions in Paris and Beijing. Paris imposed a ban in 1997, 2014 and 2015, each time for only a single day, and then revoked it, claiming that emissions levels had come down. Beijing ran the ban, most recently, for two weeks, seeing great improvements in smog levels, until China’s 70th Victory Day parade. After the parade photo-op had passed, the ban was lifted and emissions returned to their original levels. Why did Paris and Beijing not continue this experiment? It may have to do with the adverse impact on business and the economy. Fourth, the ban unfairly penalises low-emissions vehicles (for instance, those running on CNG) by treating them on par with high-emissions vehicles. Fifth, by exempting public and commercial vehicles (like autos and taxis), it distorts market signals and creates a situation where many more commercial vehicles will be needed to meet demand. This could end up increasing emissions.

If the Delhi government cannot reverse the ban, it would do well to exclude CNG vehicles from its purview. The saving grace of this order is the two-week window after which it will be reviewed. We should examine multiple alternatives in a learning-oriented mindset. Good alternatives are those that embody our core values — protecting liberty, ecology, economy — that are in need of harmonisation. Based on these values, one short-term idea is the implementation of a carpool lane to increase the occupancy of vehicles, perhaps to at least four passengers. This is challenging given the lack of lane-etiquette in Delhi, but may be a starting point. A medium-term idea is to charge progressive emissions fees based on actual vehicle emissions tests, regardless of whether it is a public or private vehicle.

A longer-term approach would be to spark voluntary action to curb emissions. One such idea comes from the Stanford Decisions and Ethics Centre. Imagine a little gadget attached to the exhaust, that measures emissions of a vehicle. The gadget has a light that could shine green, indicating that emissions are below a predetermined level, or red, indicating that emissions are over that level. The Delhi government could predetermine a target emissions level, and ration a right-to-emit quota to every registered vehicle in the city, as also to those entering Delhi from outside. As long as a vehicle is under the quota, the light will be green. A red light would alert the cops to pull the vehicle over and levy a fine.

This system would incentivise fuel-efficient vehicles. Also, different people use vehicles differently. A senior citizen may only be on the road a few days of the month. In such cases, a secondary market can legally emerge to buy additional rights to emit. A cooperation economy will naturally emerge.

A device like this does not currently exist, and if it did, we’d still have to figure out several things, including how to distribute it to all vehicles on the road. However, given the can-do spirit of the present Delhi government, it could easily encourage research into such innovative solutions. The individual technologies needed to create such a device exist. If the Delhi government takes such a values-based approach, it may actually find a solution not just for Delhi, but a model that can be replicated across the world.

– First published in An Odd Policy, Dec 08, 2015

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