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Traffic: Hell of a drive
Driving in cities now is like going through a living hell and there is little that can be done to contain the ever-growing traffic with planners running out of options. Can technology help?
BOOM IS THE word for doom gets nowhere better exemplified than the urban traffic congestion in India. Almost all Indian cities, particularly the metros, have become a nightmare to drive and those wheeling during the impossible peak hours shudder to think what would the scenario be five years from now, with almost all that could possibly have been done to improve the situation, having already been put into place. Flyovers and underpasses have been constructed, arterial roads have been broadened, innovative one-ways have been introduced, entry of commercial vehicles have been restricted. But it’s worse than ever, and no know quite knows the way out — neither the harried traffic police, nor the government, nor the urban planners.
It’s a rapidly worsening problem that is taking life out of living and joy out of city outings. It’s much better staying shut at home and doing the most moronic of things like watching TV, playing with the pet or the kids than venturing out for a gala evening somewhere in the clogged city.
If you are in the Capital Delhi, surely you would have got a taste of what it means finding your way through bee-lined carwling cars in the peak hours that can give you a sense of triumph covering a half a kilometer. No matter what route you take — north, east, west or south of the city — you invariably get trapped in the slow-paced traffic, whose snail’s progress is further hampered by breakdowns, encroachments, unmindfully parked buses at stops, occasional but sudden appearance of the four-footers, and, worse, group of organized pedestrians who would just force the wheels to a grinding halt to cross over to the other side of the road. That’s the power of people best demonstrated on the road when a resolute group can stop the unstoppable!
That must have left you scratching: what more can be done to end this road blight becoming ever more excruciating after all has been tried and done? Is there any new technology that can restore on the road the old driving charm? In any worsening situation, technology has always seemed to hold an answer. Can it or can it not help in this case?     
Because the traffic situation isn’t very different in other parts of the country, various new technology innovations have been tried with varying degrees of success to contain congestion and regulate the traffic in other countries. Foremost among them is the United Kingdom, which leveraged an information technology system to get over the impossible traffic situation during the peak hours in the heart of London. It introduced multiple unobtrusive software-driven cam toll points in the city’s center to get over the jam caused by vehicles’ onrush by forcing a cut-down in the number of visiting vehicles through cost imposition. Called Congestion Zone Charging, it brought about a comforting change in the situation after it was introduced in February 2003.
The infotech-driven Congestion Zone Charging detects all vehicles that drive into the crabbed city’s heart and charges 5 British pounds (about Rs 360) each for every entry. This toll gets billed to vehicle owners without they having to stop to make the payments at toll collection booths. They just drive on and the system takes care of the detection and the despatch of the bill which can paid either online or through mail or phone by the road user.
The CZC system comprises 688 video cameras mounted on a pole. These cameras scan the vehicles’ number plates and an image-recognition software of the system identifies each of the passing vehicles and generates a bill that gets posted to the vehicle user.
The system having proven its efficacy is getting a lookin from other road hassled countries. But will a system like this that aims at putting a cost deterrent on vehicles entering an identified decongestion zone work in India where motorists are already feeling the pinch of the high fuel costs? Will they be ready to shell out extra money to meet the decongestion cost?
Perhaps the introduction of system like this may be resented, but it is becoming unavoidable with there being not any other viable option to pick from to regulate the flow of the ever-increasing traffic. The only way left is to cut down on the traffic volume. It can be done in only two ways: either broaden the roads to accommodate the increasing number of vehicles or restrict the entry through toll introductions. The way out seems to be the toll alternative on select routes to create a fast lane since there is a limitation to the broadening of roads. Of course, the tolls could be restricted to the peak hours when the roads get swarmed by vehicles.

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