Some Myths About Transportation Busted

Sudhir Gota

Policy makers in Asia still execute piecemeal solutions to reduce the traffic externalities without considering long term impacts.  This article tries to clear some of the misconceptions about transportation. Many research reports over the last decade have debunked some of the traditional approach towards solving transport problems.  It’s clear that the policy makers should investigate the various implications and look for co-benefits before executing the solutions.  There needs to be a paradigm shift of approach from an early emphasis on motor vehicles towards recognizing the role played by the design of urban complete infrastructure, non-motorized transport and other factors.

1.    “Banning Cycle rickshaws and Two Wheelers reduce congestion”

Dhaka and Delhi are two metropolitan cities which have used congestion as a reason to ban cycle rickshaws from the primary arterials. But, research[i] conducted in Dhaka has proved that banning a mode of transport such as cycle rickshaw does not improve speed but in fact increases the congestion and fuel consumption. Before and after studies conducted on some roads in Dhaka has proved that there was no travel time gain for fuel dependent vehicle was achieved due to rickshaw ban but instead over the years the travel times for buses did undergo significant deterioration with a 26.1% increase of travel times. Also for shorter trips, there was significant increase in travel time due to non availability of transport-mode. Also it is to be noted that researchers have indicated that that rickshaws in Dhaka city save fuel worth Tk 5,000 crore[ii] every year.

Even banning two wheelers as a silver bullet solution for reducing congestion does not seem to work. Guangzhou[iii] is the only city with data on the modal shift patterns that resulted from banning motorcycles. In Guangzhou, before motorcycles were banned they constituted 20% of total trips in Guangzhou. Walking accounted for 25%, buses accounted for 30%, bicycles for 10%, cars for 5%, taxis for 5%, and other 5%.  After the ban in January 2007, of the 20% motorcycle trips,
·         51% shifted to the bus,
·         18% shifted to the bicycle,
·         18% shifted to cars or taxis,
·         9% shifted to walking,
·         2% shifted to the metro, and
·         2% shifted to other modes.

Sharp decline in average traffic speeds was observed in major arterials. In the view of local traffic engineers, the motorcycle ban combined with gradual increasing car use to push the corridor close to the 80% saturation level that leads to sudden deterioration of road speeds.  One can only control two wheelers by providing good public transport facilities, NMT facilities and by pricing the transport optimally.

2.    Small increase in two wheeler ownership tax can reduce the demand

Many consider that small increase in tax level can make significant impact on ownership levels. This may not be true. One needs to apply carrot and stick strategy i.e. stringent taxation with good public and NMT transport. Consider the case of VietNam, preference surveys[iv] here have showed that a household is less likely to buy a motorcycle ONLY when the costs of holding a motorcycle are much higher than its annual income or savings. The costs include purchase cost, VAT (5 %), and registration tax (5% in 2005). The survey also revealed that with current registration tax of 5% of the purchased price of the motorcycle, growth rate is about 16% per year.  With even 150% tax, the ownerships would drop down to only 7% per year.  Thus only charging motorcycle users at the time of motorcycle registration cannot restrict the desire to own two wheelers.

3.    “Green Roads” or “Carbon Neutral Roads” can be built by using appropriate materials and techniques – The closest one can imagine for a green road or carbon neutral roads are low volume rural roads which cater for the village traffic.  In case, if somebody is arguing that a high speed road catering for huge volume of intercity traffic is a green road or carbon- neutral on account of its material and construction technique, then it’s definitely a hoax. Researchers[v] are now arguing that the construction emissions can be considered as peanuts to the giant watermelons i.e. operation emissions.  It has been found that the construction emissions can range from few months to maximum 2 years of operation emissions. So by just by adding few additives and changing the machinery, one cannot construct green roads.

4.    Building expressways help environment by reducing emissions - Many engineers believe that expressways improve environment by automatically reducing congestion.  Well, to be honest, it’s true that the increased capacity allows speed improvements but this does not necessarily imply that it may lead to emission savings.  The impact depends on the extent of induced traffic generated. Latest research[vi] from ADB indicates that by considering induced traffic, the emissions are 17 to 58% more than the scenario with no induced traffic. Thus, in some of the case studies it was found that without considering any induced traffic, the expressway would show reductions in emissions when compared with no improvement scenario and if induced traffic is considered, the emissions actually increase from the without scenario. 

5.    BRTS offers high emission savings –The impact depends on the design of the BRTS. In case, the BRTS offers only “bus lanes” like what Delhi does, the impact on emissions may be less. The basic philosophy is that the emissions savings would come as a result of – improved buses, shift from cars and two wheelers and impact on landuse and traffic. In case the quality of service is not good, the impact will be less and thus the emissions savings. Researchers[vii] have even argued that the impact of BRTS reduces by 74% with an incomplete system. 

6.    Future two wheelers would be “E” Bikes

Many believe that e-bikes would make the motorized four stroke two wheelers extinct. But researchers[viii] think otherwise. In order to investigate the potential of e-bike proliferation in the market, Chris Cherry el al. conducted a market survey analysis in Hanoi and Ahmadabad.  The analysis examined three different states of e-scooter technology: 1) current technology; 2) upgraded technology; and 3) cutting edge technology.   

It was estimated that in the best scenario for e-bikes i.e. cutting edge technology (best), high gasoline price, and e-scooter tax incentive, e-scooter market share reaches its highest level of 42%. With no active support, e-bikes would still hold on to 20% of market share.

7.    Bike Sharing Schemes would reduce existing congestion levels

If one argues that Bike sharing schemes would make a significant contribution in reducing current congestion levels than it’s not correct. Bike sharing schemes would definitely reduce the future motorization and enhance the existing land use but would not make a huge impression on existing congestion levels. Statistics[ix] reveal that the Bike-share programs bring substantial numbers of new people into bicycling. The evaluation of different schemes suggests that substantial number of public bike riders used to make bus trips (46%) earlier. The approximate shift from Cars, two wheelers and taxis is found to be only 12%.

8.    Fuel subsidies help the Poor

Some conservative estimates[x] suggest a global value of energy subsidy at far more than $300 billion annually. Governments assume that such subsidies help in getting popular support and allow poor people to save money on services like transport. But such assumptions are wrong.  Such subsidies help people who consume more i.e. rich.  In Indonesia[xi], it has been estimated that 40 percent of high income families benefit from 70 percent of the subsidy, while 40 percent of the lowest income families only benefit 15 percent. With increasing fossil fuel subsidy, the government’s ability to fund programs which are oriented to the improvement of lives for the poor is dramatically reduced.

9.    Higher Densities mean lesser transport emissions per capita

Many experts argue for increasing the densities in cities. The argument is correct. Higher densities lead to shorter trip lengths and provide a good recipe for better public transport facilities and non motorized transport.  But, it may not be true to presume that it’s always the case. Experience[xii] from India has shown that cities having higher density can have higher emissions per capita if the transport system is inefficient. For example Surat, Pune, Kochi and Madurai have approximately same area but different density.  Kochi and Madurai have less density when compared to Surat and Pune but they also have less energy consumption. 

10.  Motorization and Income have direct correlation

Motorization is heavily influenced by the government policy interventions and economic policies. Consider the case of Singapore which can be considered as a role model in demand management for Asia. It has shown moderate increase in number of vehicles even with enormous increase in disposable income.  For example, consider the case of Singapore and Malaysia, Malaysia has nearly twice the number of cars for 1000 people when compared to Singapore with approximate one fourth of per capita income.  Similar is the comparison of South Korea and Malaysia. Malaysia has more cars per vehicle than Korea even with 50% less income.  Similarly, one cannot assume that city having higher capita income would have higher emissions. Experience[xiii] from India confirms this. A city like Chandigarh has per capita passenger travel of 2 km/day but a city like Bhopal which has one fourth of per capita income of Chandigarh has a per capita passenger travel of 3 km/day. Surely, the policies have enormous impact.

Clearly, adopting infrastructure solutions to cater for the explosive growth of vehicles cannot be the right approach. Many myths surrounding the city transport solutions have been debunked. ‘Solutions’ catering for select few at the expense for majority poor would aggravate the situation.  Clearly, the impact on the poor and the co-benefits needs to be weighed before implementing the solutions. There is an immediate need to provide equal attention to institutional, capacity, financial, social, economic and environmental considerations.

[v] See
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[xiii] See