For the past few winters, most Delhi motorists would have encountered school children and volunteers with sign boards asking to switch off stopped vehicles at signalled intersections. Such initiatives by multiple NGOs as well as the Delhi government’s recent ‘red light on, gaadi off’ campaign1 is motivated by evidence regarding emissions from idling fossil-fuel-powered vehicles.
Idling refers to situations in which the vehicle’s engine is running while the vehicle is stopped. The CSIR-Central Road Research Institute (CRRI), backed by the Petroleum Conservation Research Association, has conducted multiple studies to understand fuel consumption and emissions due to idling, especially at signalised intersections in Delhi. A 2019 study by scientists at CRRI estimated annual emissions to be about 37 tonnes of CO2 equivalent daily from just idling vehicles at 950 intersections in Delhi. A previous study, from 2013, also found that awareness campaigns had the potential to reduce idling behaviour. However, awareness campaigns by NGOs and the government have mostly focussed on highlighting environmental implications to insist users turn off their vehicles.
The literature on such communication policies has shown that people seldom respond to pro-environmental messages by realigning their self-interests. However, some social psychology models have found that carefully designed communication strategies can harness self-interest to improve uptake of pro-environmental behaviour. Reducing idling has economic benefits to the user, in terms of fuel saved.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has indicated this but on-ground campaigns didn’t emphasise this point. Similarly, even though institutions like CRRI and IIT Delhi have highlighted the loss of fuel due to idling, the potential economic savings presented have been aggregates for select intersections or in all of Delhi. The knowledge that $4.5 million (Rs 33.67 crore) per year is lost in wasted fuel during idling in Delhi may not suffice to motivate a motorist to change their behaviour. However, information that you can save more than Rs 30,000 a year by not idling could have a higher behavioural impact.
So using data from CRRI and IIT Delhi studies, we estimated annual cost savings for users from different vehicle segments if they chose to avoid idling. We found varied economic savings for users from different segments. The highest potential saving is expected from buses. However, the strategy for buses must be different because the bus driver doesn’t directly pay for the fuel. In other cases like taxis and auto-rickshaws, knowledge of potential savings is likely to influence idling behaviour. Petrol and CNG taxi drivers can save about Rs 33,000 and Rs 28,000, respectively, by changing their behaviour. These numbers, which directly appeal to individual self-interest, can be easily included in ongoing campaigns.
In contrast to strict traffic enforcement strategies, behavioural interventions offer inexpensive ways to deal with idling emissions. Field experiments in UK have revealed that including cues that are financially-, health- and kin-focused have much more impact on idling behaviour than environmentally-focused messaging. These proximal motivations are: people’s cognitive bias against material losses, motivation to avoid personal mortality and inclination to protect the young.
A similar field experiment conducted by researchers at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water have revealed observe positive effects on air-conditioner servicing behaviour in India.
Field experiments in the UK have also explored the effects of public surveillance cues using “watchful eyes” images accompanying messaging on idling. Such public surveillance cues have been earlier found to be effective in reducing bicycle thefts. The researchers found however that the “think of yourself” cue was more effective in reducing idling. This result also emphasises the importance of self-interest in influencing idling behaviour.
So we suggest finically-focussed self-interest cues be included in messaging used by awareness campaigns to reducing idling in Delhi. For example, a message could say:
RED LIGHT: ON
SAVE RS 30,000 A YEAR!
Different ways of displaying the cues, with and without volunteers, can be tested using field experiments. The experiments can derive most cost-efficient interventions, like permanent signages with self-interest cues, to deter idling.
Aravind Harikumar is a research associate in the Transport and Urban Governance Division, TERI.