Air pollution in our cities is turning our children into smokers

The lungs of too many children in Beijing, Delhi, Mexico City, and Lagos look like those of lifelong cigarette smokers. Reason? These cities have toxic levels of air pollution. So do several other cities in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

One cause of the unhealthy air is too many cars on the road. Hence, some cities have tested rules-based schemes to cut back vehicular traffic. One commonly uses rule is the so-called odd-even rule. This rule allows cars with even-numbered license plates to drive only on even-numbered days. Cars with odd-numbered license plates can drive only on odd-numbered days.

Many cities have tried the odd-even rule, or some variation. But, they either have quit using it, or use it only occasionally. The odd-even rule means that can drive your car every other day on only 13 workdays, Monday through Saturday, a month. This disrupts daily commutes, and ends up reducing work productivity.

What about road-pricing systems used by Singapore, Stockholm, and London? Could they be modified to work in the cities with polluted air? Probably “Not” in the sprawling, choking, populous Asian, Latin American, and African cities.

The reason is that these schemes aim to reduce traffic just in the city center, not all of the city. This limited remit is unlikely to reduce air pollution significantly, which originates from traffic in the whole city. Well, why not just extend the road-pricing scheme to cover the full city? This would make the city’s drivers pay whenever they drove their cars. That’s unrealistic.

Would a market-based cap-and-trade scheme work better? Probably “Yes.” To be specific, let’s see how this would work in Delhi, the most recent adopter of the odd-even rule. After a two-week trial in January 2016, Delhi is planning another trial in April 2016. Delhi’s scheme is for the whole city.

Delhi recognizes that the odd-even rule is disruptive. So, apart from emergency and public transport vehicles, Delhi has been forced to exempt many more drivers. They include leading political figures, senior judges, and paramilitary soldiers. For safety reasons, Delhi has exempted women drivers without an adult male in the car.

But, what can you do if you are a normal Delhi male driver who finds the odd-even rule too restrictive?

Well, you can buy another car with a complementary license plate. (That’s what well-off people in Lagos did). Or, you can take your chances with (illegal) fake license plates, which are openly available (no surprise) in Delhi. Or, you can hide in your car’s trunk while the women in your life drive you around.

Seriously, let’s see how the cap-and-trade alternative would work.

The government would give your car ten free one-day right-to-drive electronic transferable certificates a month. Each car’s owner could buy three more certificates from the government at a low price, for a total of 13 government-issued certificates a month. The government’s revenues would cover some of the scheme’s operational costs.

You would be free to use your government-issued certificates to drive your car on any day in the current month. And, you could save your certificates for future months. It’s your choice.

What could you do if you wanted to drive your car more often?

You would buy additional certificates from owners of other cars. The sellers would be people who want to make some money by giving up some of their certificates. Supply and demand would determine the price. This is an efficient and equitable way to cut back vehicular traffic.

The government would create an app-based marketplace to facilitate trades. A small transfer fee would cover some of the marketplace’s operating costs.

Apart from emergency and public transport vehicles, no one else would be exempt. Everyone who wanted to drive more than 13 days would have to buy additional certificates from the marketplace. But, if there were a compelling political need to favor certain groups, they could be given 15 free and 5 low-cost certificates a month.

Apart from transferable certificates, the scheme would also have non-transferable certificates. The government would issue these to three types of cars. They are: newly registered cars, to remove any incentive to buy a car just to transfer its certificates; existing clunkers, to remove any incentives to keep them going just to transfer their certificates; and cars from outside the city, to remove the risk that outsiders would sell many of their certificates to the city’s drivers.

As with all plans to reduce vehicular traffic, this scheme will work better with improved public transportation, which makes it easier for drivers to give up their cars.

This scheme needs an electronic system to check whether a car on the road is using a valid certificate that day. City governments and interested advocacy groups should come together to incentivize entrepreneurs worldwide to come up with such a system. This could be adapted from the Singapore cash-card and the U.S. EZPass systems. Or, it could be a leapfrog into a smartphone app.

Then, Asian, Latin American, and African cities would have a workable option to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion without frustrating their drivers. Productivity may actually increase with cleaner air and faster commutes. And, the children would have a better chance to play outdoors without damaging their lungs.

The lungs of too many children in Beijing, Delhi, Mexico City, and Lagos look like those of lifelong cigarette smokers. Reason? These cities have toxic levels of air pollution. So do several other cities in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

One cause of the unhealthy air is too many cars on the road. Hence, some cities have tested rules-based schemes to cut back vehicular traffic. One commonly uses rule is the so-called odd-even rule. This rule allows cars with even-numbered license plates to drive only on even-numbered days. Cars with odd-numbered license plates can drive only on odd-numbered days.

Many cities have tried the odd-even rule, or some variation. But, they either have quit using it, or use it only occasionally. The odd-even rule means that can drive your car every other day on only 13 workdays, Monday through Saturday, a month. This disrupts daily commutes, and ends up reducing work productivity.

What about road-pricing systems used by Singapore, Stockholm, and London? Could they be modified to work in the cities with polluted air? Probably “Not” in the sprawling, choking, populous Asian, Latin American, and African cities.

The reason is that these schemes aim to reduce traffic just in the city center, not all of the city. This limited remit is unlikely to reduce air pollution significantly, which originates from traffic in the whole city. Well, why not just extend the road-pricing scheme to cover the full city? This would make the city’s drivers pay whenever they drove their cars. That’s unrealistic.

Would a market-based cap-and-trade scheme work better? Probably “Yes.” To be specific, let’s see how this would work in Delhi, the most recent adopter of the odd-even rule. After a two-week trial in January 2016, Delhi is planning another trial in April 2016. Delhi’s scheme is for the whole city.

Delhi recognizes that the odd-even rule is disruptive. So, apart from emergency and public transport vehicles, Delhi has been forced to exempt many more drivers. They include leading political figures, senior judges, and paramilitary soldiers. For safety reasons, Delhi has exempted women drivers without an adult male in the car.

But, what can you do if you are a normal Delhi male driver who finds the odd-even rule too restrictive?

Well, you can buy another car with a complementary license plate. (That’s what well-off people in Lagos did). Or, you can take your chances with (illegal) fake license plates, which are openly available (no surprise) in Delhi. Or, you can hide in your car’s trunk while the women in your life drive you around.

Seriously, let’s see how the cap-and-trade alternative would work.

The government would give your car ten free one-day right-to-drive electronic transferable certificates a month. Each car’s owner could buy three more certificates from the government at a low price, for a total of 13 government-issued certificates a month. The government’s revenues would cover some of the scheme’s operational costs.

You would be free to use your government-issued certificates to drive your car on any day in the current month. And, you could save your certificates for future months. It’s your choice.

What could you do if you wanted to drive your car more often?

You would buy additional certificates from owners of other cars. The sellers would be people who want to make some money by giving up some of their certificates. Supply and demand would determine the price. This is an efficient and equitable way to cut back vehicular traffic.

The government would create an app-based marketplace to facilitate trades. A small transfer fee would cover some of the marketplace’s operating costs.

Apart from emergency and public transport vehicles, no one else would be exempt. Everyone who wanted to drive more than 13 days would have to buy additional certificates from the marketplace. But, if there were a compelling political need to favor certain groups, they could be given 15 free and 5 low-cost certificates a month.

Apart from transferable certificates, the scheme would also have non-transferable certificates. The government would issue these to three types of cars. They are: newly registered cars, to remove any incentive to buy a car just to transfer its certificates; existing clunkers, to remove any incentives to keep them going just to transfer their certificates; and cars from outside the city, to remove the risk that outsiders would sell many of their certificates to the city’s drivers.

As with all plans to reduce vehicular traffic, this scheme will work better with improved public transportation, which makes it easier for drivers to give up their cars.

This scheme needs an electronic system to check whether a car on the road is using a valid certificate that day. City governments and interested advocacy groups should come together to incentivize entrepreneurs worldwide to come up with such a system. This could be adapted from the Singapore cash-card and the U.S. EZPass systems. Or, it could be a leapfrog into a smartphone app.

Then, Asian, Latin American, and African cities would have a workable option to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion without frustrating their drivers. Productivity may actually increase with cleaner air and faster commutes. And, the children would have a better chance to play outdoors without damaging their lungs.


If you like what you just read, please hit the green “Heart” button below so that others may stumble upon this essay. For more essays like this, make sure to follow me by hitting the green “Follow” button.