The cold season is here and just like previous years in the past decades the residents of Tehran and several other large cities in Iran such as Tabriz, Mashhad, and Isfahan are suffering from high levels of air pollution. Just in the first week of February and in the last week of autumn, the schools in Tehran were shut down for almost the whole weeks because of dangerously high levels of air pollution and similar measures were also taken in Tabriz, Urmia, and Mashhad. In this short space I would like to talk about a potential and practical measure to address the crisis of air pollution in Tehran and other populated cities of Iran. But, fist some statistics:
- In 2016, three Iranian cities (Zabol, Boshehr, and Ahvaz) were among the 40 most polluted cities in the world with Zabol ranking first.
- In 2013, more than 19,600 premature deaths were attributed to air pollution.
- Conservative estimates put the economic cost of air pollution at about $13 billion or more than 2 percent of Iran’s GDP in 2016. Some estimates are as high as $30 billion.
- In all of 2014, Shiraz, Isfahan, Ahvaz, Tehran, Mashhad, and Tabriz air quality at healthy levels for ONLY 11, 11, 15, 18, 44, and 70 days respectively. Note that about one-third of Iran’s 80 million population reside in these cities and their suburbs.
- 70%-80% of Tehran’s air pollution is related to the transportation sector (i.e. personal cars, motorbikes, buses, taxis, trucks, and etc.) where old buses, mini-buses, and trucks account for about half it.
The proposal is simple: implement a dynamic tolling system for using personal vehicles and channel those proceeds to expand and deepen the network of green mass transit system which operate on natural gas and electricity.
To be effective and fair, the toll amount should depend on a combination of the following factors:
- The amount of pollution a car emits.
- The traffic conditions.
- The quality of air.
- Less time wasted in traffic congestions. Iran ranks first in the world in terms of time wasted in traffic congestion per adult person. An adult living in Tehran wastes around 50 minutes extra per day or 250 hours per year in traffic. At the country level, around 5 billion hours are wasted annually in traffic congestion in Iran costing the Iranian economy about $2 billion annually. This is in addition to higher levels of stress, fatigue, short-temperedness, and various illnesses that could be caused by severe traffic congestions.
- Less air pollution. The transportation sector is responsible for 70% - 80% of air pollution of major Iranian cities. Therefore, reducing traffic congestions can reduce air pollution. The logic is simple. If a vehicle is operating 2-3 times the amount of time it would require getting from point A to point B because of traffic congestions, it is contributing to air pollution 2-3 times more than if there was no traffic congestion.
- Less waste of fuel. Iranians consume 150 million liters of gasoline and diesel per day which is equivalent to all of gasoline and diesel consumed in a given day in all of the European Union. About half of this amount is due to traffic congestions.
The proceeds of a dynamic tolling system would have to be channeled towards expanding the capacity, routes, and frequency of “green” public transportation such as busses operated on natural gas or battery and metro. This would ensure the sustainability and acceptability of a dynamic tolling system while also minimizing the impact on the public’s transit needs.
It is long overdue for relevant policymakers to let go of the decades-old inefficient and ineffective policy of “even-odd” license plate numbers and focus on figuring out the detail of how to implement a dynamic tolling system. Again, let’s not forget that the annual economic and human cost of air pollution in Iran is estimated to be at least $13 billion and about 20,000 premature deaths, respectively. There is much to be gained, not least the clearing of the air!
*This article was produced by an independent author and the views expressed are those of the author alone, and do not represent either the views or policies of the World Bank.