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New Delhi (AFP) – After decades of commuting on the perilous roads of New Delhi, office worker Ashok Kumar is spending more time than ever in the traffic jams that clog the arteries of the Indian capital and pollute the city.
The sprawling megalopolis of 20 million people is consistently ranked as the most polluted capital in the world, with traffic exhaust being one of the main drivers of the toxic smog that permeates the skies, especially in winter.
Delhi’s patchwork public transport network struggles to cope with a burgeoning population, with long queues winding past the city’s underground metro stations each evening and overcrowded buses making their way in blocked arteries.
“When I arrived in Delhi the air was clean as there were hardly any cars or bikes on the roads,” Kumar told AFP as he waited to return home outside the main bus station in the city.
“But now everyone owns a vehicle.”
Kumar spends nearly four hours each day on a “grueling journey” to and from his home in the far south of Delhi’s suburbs, alternating between commuter buses, shared private taxis and rickshaws.
Even at 61, Kumar hopes to save enough money to buy his own scooter and spare himself the pain of commuting.
“Few people can afford to waste their time on public transport,” he said.
Private vehicle registrations have tripled in the past 15 years – there are now more than 13 million on the capital’s roads, according to government figures.
The consequences are felt year round, with Delhi road users spending an hour and a half more in traffic than other major Asian cities, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
But in winter, the daily inconvenience escalates into a real public health crisis, as the prevailing winds slow down and the thick layer of haze settles over the city and sees an increase in hospital admissions of residents in need. trouble breathing.
In early November, vehicle emissions accounted for more than half of the concentration of PM2.5 in city air, the smallest airborne particles most dangerous to human health, according to the Center for Delhi Science and Environment (CSE).
“It made more sense”
A study by the center last year showed that the capital was experiencing a steady decline in public transport ridership.
Infrastructure has improved since the turn of the century, when Delhi inaugurated the first links of an underground rail network that now spans over 250 stations and extends to nearby satellite towns.
But the CSE said long distances between metro stations and residential areas were pushing commuters to switch to private vehicles.
“The metro is convenient but I still had to take a rickshaw or collective taxi from the station to my house,” Sudeep Mishra, 31, told AFP.
Mishra’s daily commute was a 50 kilometer (30 mile) round trip, including the two kilometers he had to travel from the nearest station to his home – now all done on a used motorcycle.
âIt was also complicated and expensive,â said Mishra, also a white collar. “It made more sense to buy my vehicle to save time and money.”
Experts say poor last mile connectivity is a particular problem for women, who often have to choose between private transport or risk walking dark and dangerous streets.
The shift to private vehicles has seen the atrophy of Delhi’s bus network, with more than 100 bus lines cut since 2009.
The state-run Delhi Transport Corporation’s fleet has shrunk by nearly half in a decade, and the last order for new buses was in 2008 – with a planned expansion marred by allegations of corruption.
There is a direct link between this underinvestment in public transport and worsening air pollution in the capital, said Sunil Dahiya, a New Delhi-based analyst at the Center for Energy and Energy Research. fresh air.
Official campaigns have attempted to alleviate the haze in recent years, with the city at one point banning vehicles from driving on the roads using an odd-even system of alternation based on license plate numbers.
Groups of young people are paid to stand at busy intersections, holding up signs urging drivers to switch off the ignition while waiting at red lights.
And incentives have been offered to electric vehicle owners, but with just 145 charging stations in the city, adoption has been slow.
Dahiya told AFP that only a huge investment in making public transport more attractive and convenient would solve this intractable problem.
“We need aggressive growth in public transport to start seeing an absolute reduction in air pollution levels,” he said.
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