Saturday, November 26, 2005

from the mailbox: the car culture, sunita narain

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: G
growth rate of cars in China: 14%
growth rate of cars in India: 24%
Indian govt has been telling people to have fewer kids so that there is space for cars and so that global auto majors have an attractive market.. no wonder the census figures are so alarming from the Hindu perspective
a beautiful article on this subject:
Sunita Narain: The cities` car nightmare


Sunita Narain / New Delhi December 07, 2004

I recently visited Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai. The singular impression I have of all these cities, and of others I occasionally visit — and of course, the one I live in, Delhi — is one of noise, pollution, plastic, garbage and filth.
But what hits you most is the image of cities overrun by vehicles; cars and more cars. Traffic in all cities is now bumper to bumper. Even Bangalore, the sanctuary city, is a car-mess.
This nightmare has crept upon us insidiously. Most people living in cities cannot even comprehend, let alone contest, this change. When my colleague Anil Agarwal made presentations to the Indian Parliament in the mid-1980s about India's environmental challenges, he found no reason to speak of urban chaos and its deadly impacts.
It was not there to see then. So this change is really the story of the past 15 years. In other words, it is an ecological history old enough for us to lament but, perhaps, young enough to still rectify.
Let's stick to transport. Take any city's data: the increase in the number of vehicles far outstrips the growth in human population. Chennai, for instance, has seen a 10 per cent growth in people and a staggering 108 per cent growth in on-road private vehicles in the past decade.
I do not think this is accidental. Private vehicle growth has paralleled the decline in public transport. In 1990, Ahmedabad had almost 800 buses, or roughly 23 buses per 1,00,000 people. In the early 1980s, the situation was better: 30 buses per 1,00,000 people.
But by 2003, the city had barely 400 operational buses. The ratio now: less than nine buses per 1,00,000 people. Only Delhi — because of the Supreme Court order that mandated 10,000 buses running on clean fuel — has substantially increased its fleet.
At this point, many might argue that population growth is inevitable; what can city planners do? But, while human population growth may be ordained, the growth of private vehicles is certainly not.
Remember, the decline in public transport leaves people with no choice but to move towards private vehicles. In the jargon of transport planners, there has occurred a substantial modal shift in transportation in these cities.
I remember reading, many years ago, how the automobile industry of the US had deliberately bought out the railways and the tramways so that it could decimate its competitors.
In India, as usual, the story is simpler. Private interests have gained from the destruction of public service. But they have not had to invest in this destruction.
The wound is officially self-inflicted. The past 15 years are about neglect and apathy. And no interest that speaks for the public good any more. Another indication of the total collapse of government.
The problem is not that there are sellers of cars. The problem is that there are no sellers of public transport. Worse, even its "owners" have become its enemy. In most cities, bus fleets run not as transportation companies but as employment services.
Ahmedabad, for instance, has 8,000 employees to run its mere 400-odd buses. Its owner, the government, will not sack these employees.
And it certainly will not invest in improvements. In fact, what it will do is to argue, vociferously, that it has no money to invest in public transportation. It is, after all, a poor government of a poor country. But this would be more than complete falsehood.
Let me explain. First, every city reluctant to invest in public transport is busy building flyovers to take care of the burgeoning traffic — when it knows flyovers never solved the problem anywhere.
They are like the proverbial Internet, where points of traffic jam shift; even as you invest in more space, cars fill it up. The answer to congestion is not more road space, but less.
But more on misleading sarkari economics. Delhi, for instance, according to government documents, is building 42 new structures, which will cost the exchequer nothing less than Rs 500 crore.
Now we know that private vehicles control over 90 per cent of the road space in our cities. Therefore, this is a subsidy for this mode of transport. On the other hand, the same money spent on public transport would have substantially upgraded services for all.
Second, and more shockingly, private vehicles pay less road tax than public transport vehicles. So, let us be clear that this is a mockery of economics; here, the poor support the rich.
But in case these facts make you believe public transport is not used in our cities, let me correct this. It is true that private vehicles constitute over 90 per cent of all vehicles in our cities.
But it is also true that in many cities, public transport, however it may exist, still moves over 50 to 70 per cent of commuters. In other words, this is not the story of the US, where the car replaced the bus.
It is the story of poor cities — Bangalore, Chennai, Pune — of a poor country, where the poor have not become rich. They have only been neglected. Murderously so!


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iamfordemocracy said...

Good public transport systems are being systematically destroyed. Politicians find it quite easy. A politician starts a private transport company, lobbies to get the transport minister's post (these events go hand in hand), instructs the public service officials in the area to neglect/kill services on the lines the private company runs its vehicle, and eventually monopolises transport in the area.

This has hit the villagers hard. They are paying 3-4 times as much as they paid 10 years back, and often, they have to travel 15 people in a sumo, or 6-7 in an autorikshaw.

The worst part is that media does not have time to focus on this. The blame squarely lies with media.

san said...

'iamfordemocracy' - but then what is preventing any other private entrepreneur to enter the same sector to compete?

I empathize with you say about rural people being hit hard. Ironically, since rural population are majority of electorate, that would mean that your aforementioned transport minister's party would get turfed out in a vote.

Given India's population density, I am in favor of Japanese-style mass-transit development- train, subway, bus, etc. Maybe in a couple of decades we'll even get bullet-trains like China.

san said...

Looks like India's Dalit Christians want the same Mandal as the heathen Dalits:

What happened? Conversion didn't bring the wealth they were promised? Maybe they should shop around a little more, and become free agents to trade to a better team.

Kalyani said...

An insightful article. Well, eventually "everything destroys itself by excess".

A dead man was buried along with his car and the tombstone read:-

"May you rust in piece"

blackpanther said...

this article is interesting in itself but i would like to bring your attention to one para.
It is clear that America can't be conquered through military attack. Not yet - if ever, unless the Chinese are successful in creating their planned racially targeted bio-bomb that will only kill white people and leave those of Asian origin unharmed. (I kid you not. They are actively working on this, however remote the possibility of success may appear at this point.)

it's turning out that the chinese have more dangerous plans than anything you have said on this blog. and our communists are allying with the worst of the imperialists.

iamfordemocracy said...


Enlightened voters would have thrown out most of India's politicians long back. Take any party that claims to protect the interests of a particular group -- RJD of Yadavs; Shiv sena of Marathi people and then Hindus; Communists vis-a-vis factory workers.. Good economic progress has delivered much more to any of these groups than a particular party has done. Alas, the voter takes a considerable time to realise this.

The worsts example of this syndrome is the small town of Dombivli, once the most literate town in perhaps the entire India, with 92%+ literacy levels. Continued blind support to BJP has resulted into a complete degradation of the quality of life.

My point is, efficient executive and vigilat media are a must if the democracy is to function properly. The deteriorating public transport is yet another symptom that suggests that some pillars of democracy have corroded...

san said...

iamfordemocracy - I would submit to you that the 4th Estate (media) are just as corruptible or even more corruptible than the political class.

media is just a means to an end -- public discussion and debate. now that we have blogs, etc, then we can each and everyone of us become media -- it's not like any of us needs a license or a blessing. then the marketplace of ideas can extend to its maximum span across society. that's why the marxists make it their first goal to target the media either for co-opting or for brazen censorship. because they are afraid of the ideas of others reaching the delicate ears of their isolated subjects.

DarkStorm said...

Well, a very important point missed out in previous discussions is this : More cars, means more oil imports, and the geo-political implications thereof. More blackmail. More drain on the economy.

Cars are in general, fuel inefficient. My heavy bike (lighter bikes give more) gives four times the mileage, an ordinary car would, even a small car. And public transport vehicles give approx one-fifth the efficiency (on less refined fuel) of an average car, but carry 10 times the number of passengers comfortably. (without counting the standing ppl).

Again, Mumbai has one of the best and most efficient bus networks in the country ; and till 10 years ago, Ahmedabad had a comparable efficiency. I have spent some time in both cities. Ahmedabad has degraded due to negligence and mumbai too a bit, due to overload.

It is good to have a good automobile industry, but it is the people who have to limit usage. Use car when raining, or hot afternoon sun, or taking a family out. For personal use, prefer a bike / bus. My brother does this exactly to save fuel costs. Car is used approx thrice a week, incl weekends.

Kalyani said...

DarkStorm is right.Self discipline,as always is the most effective step to begin with.

Also with many people,I have personally seen,owning a car is more for vanity value.

Then they end up paying visits and fees to the doctor who advises limiting the use of a vehicle and
exercising the body.