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Chaos of countless cars and air pollution
Nothing corrodes the quality of life more than chaotic urban transport. A developing country like India must come up with a long-term, efficient transport policy, and implement it faithfully
Anyone living in a major metropolitan area anywhere in the world sees the growing chaos with increase in the population of cars. Ever since Henry Ford came up with large-scale production of automobiles, every aspiring individual right from childhood yearns to possess and drive an automobile. Governments in general have been slow to anticipate the growth in demand for mobility, and come up with solutions that would slow down the growth in demand for automobiles, at least in towns and cities. The fact that over 50 per cent of the population of the world is urbanised, and this percentage is growing perceptibly, requires that transport solutions be implemented with an eye on the future.
Recent estimates of the global growth of vehicles are frightening, and anybody who lives in Beijing, Los Angeles, Mexico City, New Delhi or other large cities needs to feel concerned. Based on current trends, it is anticipated that around 2035, the total population of cars worldwide would hit the two billion mark. China and India are seen as the two countries with the largest growth.
The current population of vehicles is around 1.25 billion, and new vehicle sales annually are inching upto the 100 million mark. By 2035, it is expected that almost 130 million vehicles will be sold worldwide. There are projections of how many of these will be battery electric, plug-in hybrid or fuel cell vehicles, but the bulk of vehicles will still be run by gasoline or diesel fuel. Such an increase certainly has implications for climate change, air quality, and inter-city travel, but most importantly for intra-city travel.
The reality is that even in the developing countries the power of advertising ensures that everyone who has the means must acquire a vehicle. China still has lower ownership levels than most Western countries. If ownership in China were to reach the same rate as the US, the country would have a billion vehicles today. In the US perhaps saturation has been reached with about 250 million vehicles for a population of approximately 300 million.
The Mahatma said, “A technological society has two choices. First, it can wait until catastrophic failures expose systemic deficiencies, distortions, and self-deceptions.. Second, a culture can provide social checks and balances to correct for systemic distortions prior to catastrophic failures.” The sporadic efforts being made in various cities would hardly avoid the catastrophe inherent in the growth of the world’s vehicle fleet. There are some cities where the trend is in the right direction. For instance, in Tokyo and most Japanese cities, vehicle ownership relative to the population has declined, and so has the mileage recorded per vehicle — essentially the result of extremely reliable and accessible public transport. The city of Zurich in Switzerland is another example of excellent public transport which compared with car ownership is the favoured option to meet the demand for mobility. A country like India needs to move away from the banal temptation of one automobile per person. It is far better to provide for public transport to meet the needs of all. It is also important to come up with a vision of non-polluting vehicles, such as those run on electricity or those fitted with fuel cells. If we do not come up with such a long-term transport policy, and implement it faithfully, we would never be able to escape the grip of the automobile industry.
In the US, in particular, the automobile, oil and highway lobbies have been notoriously successful in blocking the growth of the railways and their modernisation. This writer first visited China in 1981 when the rail system in that country was nowhere near that of India either in spread or efficiency. Today, China boasts of high speed trains connecting most of the cities running well above 300 km per hour. In the case of Japan, one only needs to experience travel on the bullet train or Shinkansen, where literally a cup of tea full to the brim will not spill while the train is moving. If the US had high speed trains, the airlines operating between New York and Washington, DC, would be out of business, because passengers would prefer travel by train from city centre to city centre taking less than two hours.
One serious impact of the current obsession with vehicular transportation is the terrible air quality in cities like Beijing, New Delhi, Mexico City and Los Angeles. Air pollution is extremely harmful for human health. In the case of the US, if it were not for the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards and effective regulations and traffic management, air quality would have been far worse than what we have.
Various initiatives would improve air quality and congestion, and reduce road rage resulting from today’s pattern of vehicular transport in cities. The experience with bicycle lanes in many cities has been uniquely successful but this requires appropriate infrastructure, dedicated lanes and secure bicycle stands. The French Government, for instance, has taken a decision to support purchase of electric bicycles up to a total of 200 Euros in an effort to move towards clean transportation options. Precise specifications have been laid down to qualify for such an incentive.
Norway has been particularly aggressive in promoting the use of electric vehicles (EVs), as a result of which it probably has a larger percentage of EVs than any other country in the world. Like most cities and towns in Scandinavian countries, where there are dedicated bus lanes, EVs are permitted access to these lanes along with privileged parking and toll free movement. There are also adequate recharging stations which have been provided.
While many of these changes require the articulation of forward looking transportation policies at the national level, the only effective solution would be to create appropriate expertise and capacity in local Governments of towns and cities. This is clearly not the case of ‘one size fits all’, and we would need to make sure that each town or city develops and implements transportation plans unique to its own circumstances and demand for mobility. It is obvious that for sustainable urban mobility a forward looking approach is absolutely essential to ensure that we do not get trapped into a pattern which would require difficult, if not impossible, changes at a later stage.
A developing country cannot establish infrastructure and facilities which would be replaced or rendered useless in the future. A prudent approach would be to ensure that we make choices towards the most desirable and sustainable solutions in the future. The alternative to a visionary approach would be compounded chaos, loss of human welfare and growing misery for urban citizens. Nothing corrodes the quality of life more than chaotic urban transport.
(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2002-15)
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