Delhi’s Smog Apocalypse Forces Cars Off Roads

The Indian megalopolis ushers in 2016 with shallow breathing.

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The residents of India’s largest city are wheezing into the new year. Use of cars in Delhi will be restricted in January, a move intended to lift the toxic cloud that often rests on this city—a megalopolis covering 270 square miles and containing more than 20 million people. From Jan. 1 through Jan. 15, an alternate-day scheme will remove as many as half of the city’s 9 million registered vehicles. CNN reports that the program is also being rolled out to encourage higher ridership of Delhi’s public transportation system. If the scheme works, officials may seek to formalize a number-plate schedule, not unlike the kind used in Mexico City's successful Hoy No Circula system.

Though Beijing seizes the majority of headlines for its often deplorable air quality, Delhi officially claims the most polluted air of any city in the world, with environmental scientists recording a score of 153 in the universally used PM2.5 scale (particulate matter per 2.5 micrometers). The Drive’s native New York tops out at 14. Beijing? 53.

Granted, passenger cars aren’t the greatest contributors to Delhi’s ignominious distinction. The lung-stinging particulates from coal-fired power plants, cooking fuel and burning crops in the surrounding Gangian river plain blow in and settle over the Indian capital for days on end. But with a cited 1,400 new cars joining the roads every day, the country’s Supreme Court views vehicle volume as the easiest lever to pull.

Delhi has already experimented with levying taxes on heavy-polluting vehicles like diesel-burning commercial trucks—what Londoners would know as a congestion charge—but little has dissuaded determined motorists. Critics of both programs cite underserved, unreliable public-transportation infrastructure as the chief deterrent to broader rider adoption.

Among the few vehicle classes not affected by the Jan. 1 restriction is motorcycles. Which is to say, don’t be surprised to find The Drive West Coast editor Chris Cantle throwing a leg over a Bajaj on your next swing through the subcontinent.

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