Taming our roads

Traffic cops need to be armed only with a camera.

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Technology does not solve any problem if the stakeholders are not serious about solving it in the first place. But technology does make the job easier if the social capital exists. While we have strong debates and opinions about loftier things like Freedom of Speech and Nationalism, rarely do we have national debates on the state of our urban infrastructure. Yet it is the most tangible aspect of the government action (or inaction) which affects more than half of the country now. Urban spaces are different than villages in the sense that they are harder to govern without formal institutions. A village can form a group of elders fairly easily and they can act as interlocutors for disputes and also for matters related to management of community resources. A city works on a different scale. No one knows everybody and everyone cannot agree to anything. Hence, respected institutions and very clear rules that can be followed without much hand-holding is an explicit need of a city.

Traffic in Indian Cities is a beast that needs to be tamed. It is a perfect example of people coming together and causing disharmony instead of cohesion. No one follows the rules even if it will make everyone happier by following them. Behavioral Sciences study these kinds of interactions and place significant weight on initial conditions. With the same set of rules and participants but with different initial conditions, systems tend to move towards very different equilibrium. Hence a mere change in rules like increasing the penalty, etc. will not change the situation much. A focused effort needs to be put in to change the fundamentals and arrive at a new stable point. But who will make the change?

Three agencies need to come together to achieve this. The municipal corporations need to update and maintain the infrastructure. The RTO needs to license and maintain records of vehicles and authorized drivers. And finally the traffic police need to enforce the rules on the road. The key ingredient that is missing in most cities is the ability to track and recover fees. Technology can help in this regard. Bangalore already has a system which can send challans to the offenders at their doorstep or over email. The traffic cops need use this data more effectively. Unless people are convinced that they cannot get away with breaking traffic laws there will not be a change in the behavior.

 

Siddarth Gore is a Research Scholar at the Takshashila Institution and he tweets @siddhya

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