How can we reduce the time taken to cross Toll Plazas?

Ever sat in a 505Ltd at the Vashi Toll Naka wondering when the bus would cross?

Recently, word spread that people would not have to pay if they waited for longer than two minutes and 50 seconds in the queue at a toll plaza. While the original report stating this was later on rectified, stating that the three minute window was valid at the counter only and that too only in the state of Punjab, it did leave a lot of people wondering­ – How much longer do we have to wait to cross this toll plaza?

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) did clarify back in April that there was no provision for exemption from toll due to time delays.

In 2015, it was reported that delays at toll plazas cost the country Rs 60,000 crore a year in terms of productivity.

 

So, how do we fix this problem?

The first of them is ostensibly, the FASTag. As I had mentioned earlier, FASTag could solve nearly all the problems caused due to time delays at toll plazas. However, the issue is that it would solve nearly all the problems and not all of them.

Delays due to non FASTag users as well as the large queue of vehicles before reaching the counter need to be tackled, albeit separately.

Round fares

Toll rates need to be rounded off to the nearest multiple of Rs 10. Some toll plazas, such as the Thoppur toll plaza in Tamil Nadu are notorious for having fares such as Rs 83 or Rs 292 which cause delays due to returning change. When change is not available, operators resort to giving toffees to the driver. Rounded fares would make it easier and more efficient to pay and will plug revenue leaks. It also reduces the time taken to pull out change, count it and hand it back.

Exact Change Lanes

The exact change lane, pioneered by the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey is an automated lane where the user has to pay the exact amount. The system uses a basket where coins are thrown in by users and then mechanically counted by a machine. A photograph of the vehicle and its registration is also taken and the gates open. While the exact same method cannot be replicated in India – toll rates on the Parkway don’t cross $1.50 – a system that accepts notes, similar to those seen at Metro stations can be replicated. The only possible issue that could arise out of this is the damage to the machines. We have all seen how dysfunctional touch-screen machines and ATMs across the country get because people are not too sure how to use it.

Lane Discipline

The lack of lane discipline is undoubtedly the largest cause of delays at toll plazas. Impatient drivers cut lanes and try to fit themselves between two cars when they see another lane moving faster. Often, a driver might see an empty gap between two lanes and drive into that gap, followed by others, thus creating a new lane where none existed. At the toll plaza itself, when it becomes clear that no lane existed there, they then force themselves into existing lanes. Since the level of impatience is common across both lanes, nobody allows another to join in, thus resulting in more delays.

While enforcing lane discipline is the duty of the Regional Transport Authority (RTA) while issuing driving licences and the traffic police, these are long term changes. At the toll plaza, different approaches need to be made to enforce lane discipline. In order to solve lane discipline, physical changes need to be made.

Lane separators

Lanes at toll plazas need physical barriers separating them from one another. These barriers which are usually not very long need to be at least 100 metres long so to prevent lane switching and ensuring smoother flow. Further, they need to be removable so that in case a lane shuts down due to a technical glitch, they can be shifted to another lane.

Reversible lanes

The concept of reversible lanes has been in use in India, most notably at the two toll plazas along the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. Reversible lanes refer to lanes that can be used in either direction. At toll plazas, depending on the volume of traffic per direction, certain lanes on the side with lesser traffic can be “reversed” and the side with more traffic. Therefore, depending on the volume of traffic, lanes can be reversed accordingly and more vehicles can be accommodated in the same space.

Staggered toll plazas

Another concept that has slowly seen implementation in India, at several locations, staggered toll plazas are toll plazas where some lanes in the same direction cross the main toll plaza and then have a separate set of counters of their own.

(can insert a Google map screeny here)

This system was referred to by Ralph E Gomory as the addition of lanes ‘upstream’ or ‘downstream’ of a toll plaza and has been use in New York City where it was reported to have reduced congestion.

 

Reducing delays at toll plazas can greatly reduce travel times, increase productivity and ensure faster shipment of goods and services across the country. It just remains to be seen if government agencies and concessionaires are willing to go the extra mile and implement some measures to reduce the waiting time at toll plazas. Toll plazas cannot be eliminated, but the delays can be.

Now for buses: The only time I’ve seen government buses use any non-cash form of payment is on the AC Express series on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Otherwise, while they are generally exempted in several areas such as the MEP toll plazas, they still have to stand in line.

The solution is simple. Get FASTag. Enforce FASTag lanes. That way, these buses won’t have to stand with the rest of the vehicles and can go through without any hiccups. All state-owned buses too should get them. It would make things a lot easier, wouldn’t it?

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