Gobar Times
Cover Story


   In awe of autombiles  

Cars, Cars and More Cars...  

Small and big; fancy and austere; manufactured for the Indian public or customised exclusively for the rich and the famous. Have you noticed how the entire nation has been on the ‘auto-talk mode’, ever since the new year set in? Even as automobile companies are vying with each other to roll out fresh models to tempt consumers; auto experts are filling newspaper columns and prime-time television space with glowing predictions of how the ‘great Indian dream’ – of a very sizeable section of the country’s humungous population owning cars – is about to come true.

So, Gobar Times decided to do a reality check. If a few million more cars are added to the Indian roads in the coming years – how will it affect us, the people living in this country? Well, what we found is not exactly a ‘dream come true’ situation. In fact, it is more like a nightmare... We found out that these alluring automobiles will jostle for the limited space on our limited roads. Air quality will only get worse, energy use will go up, and instead of moving ahead, people will actually grind to a stop due to congestion.

By 2020 there will be well over 1.1 billion motor vehicles in the world! If they all lined up and drove past us at the rate of one vehicle per second, it would take 35 years for 1.1 billion motor vehicles to drive by.

Indians: getting auto 'immobile'

Peak Hour Traffic scenario in any Asian city is a cartoonist’s delight. Hassled motorists, frayed tempers, crammed buses, trams and metros – a chaos complete with cars, two-wheelers and vans, jeeps, crawling through a choking haze of pollution. The dream of mobility woven around a snazzy car has turned into a nightmare of immobility. During the last decade (1996-2006), while the total road length in Delhi has increased by about 20 per cent, cars have increased by 132 per cent...

Delhi, like Bangalore, adds roughly 1,000 vehicles each day on its roads.

A recent survey finds that people lose 2.5 hours every day to reach their destination. Imagine the waste! Current estimates already suggest that congestion cost can be as high as Rs 3,000-4,000 crore per year in the city.This is bound to get worse, as roads and flyovers fail to keep pace with the growing numbers. Road speed in Delhi, as in Mumbai and Bangalore, has actually gone down – not up – in spite of increased investments in road widening and flyovers.

Now here is another interesting piece of information. While there has been a phenomenal growth of private vehicles in our cities, large numbers of people – an estimated 60 per cent and above – still travel by bus or bicycle or walk to work.

Share of buses in the total fleet in India has dwindled from 11 per cent in the 1950s to 1.1 per cent today. This is visible in the use of road space. In Delhi, personal vehicles – cars and two-wheeler – use up more than 75 per cent of the road space but meet only 20 per cent of the commuting demand. But buses that use less than 5 per cent of the road space, meet more than 60 per cent of the travel demand.

Marginalised: The share of buses in the total vehicle fleet in India has dwindled from 11 per cent in the 1950s to 1.1 per cent today.

Delhi’s buses: Going bust

Little has been done to plan for public transport in the city and connectivity between the growing cities of the National Capital Region. It is no wonder then that the National Highway 8 – the Delhi-Gurgaon road – which was designed for a traffic volume of 160,000 vehicles by 2015, already has 130,000 cars fighting for space.

The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) in its recent report has noted that bus numbers in the city do not even add up to the target of 10,000 set by the Supreme Court way back in July 1998. Clearly, a massive initiative to increase public transport is needed along with steps to restrain the growth of private vehicles.

The personal car in India has not replaced the bus, it has only marginalised it. The message is loud and clear. Cars do meet our aspirations, but they cannot meet our needs. Our needs must be met by public transport.

Parking Perks

Consider this. Out of 8760 hours in a year the total driving time of an average car is 400 hours. For about 90 to 95 per cent of the time a car is parked either in residence or in office.

Parking is one of the most wasteful uses of cars

If demand for land for an average car is measured on the basis of the average size of the car and one parking space per car, the total cars already occupy 10.8 per cent city’s urbanised area. Now consider this: Delhi’s forest cover is 11.5 per cent of the geographical area of the National Capital Territory of Delhi!

Cars: living in luxury

A car is allotted 23 sq m for parking. And the government allots 18 sq m plots to 32 sq km plots for low cost housing schemes for the slum dwellers!

The car owning minority is using up more and more road space and urban space.

Land is limited. Where will Delhi or any other city in India find more land to park cars?

No Parking Any Time

Around the world, cities have capped parking supply. Shows significant impact.

Portland, Oregon set an overall cap of 40,000 parking spaces downtown. This increased public transport usage from 20-25 per cent in the 1970s to 48 per cent in mid 1990s.

New York's very high parking fees and limited parking supply have lowered car ownership far below the average rates in other US cities.

Boston has frozen parking requirements at 10 per cent higher than the 1973 levels. This has helped Boston to meet the federal clean air standards. Bogota has removed limit on the fees that private parking companies can charge. The additional revenue is dedicated to road maintenance and public transit service improvement.

The Pollution-vehicle link

   Dithering Governments, Reluctant Auto Makers, Black Lungs    

Sources of air pollution are many and diverse. But none are as lethal as vehicles, as they are responsible for very high exposure. Vehicular emissions take place in the breathing zone of people. “So those who live or work in close proximity to heavily-travelled roadways are subject to high levels of exposure”, say experts.

And now there are plenty of studies to show constant exposure to auto exhausts causes severe health damages. Motor vehicles emit some of the deadliest cancer producing compounds. They also induce chronic and acute respiratory disorders.

   Deathly Traps   

In the global scenario, some of the worst cases of outdoor air pollution are now found in Indian cities, including the medium-sized and smaller towns. Urban air here is a cocktail of particulates and gaseous products, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxides (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), benzene, ozone (O3), a range of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and a variety of volatile organic compounds.

But the overriding fear is concerning the chillingly high levels of particulate matter (PM), especially of size less than 10 micron (PM10), detected in the air. These finer particles, which are generated by combustion of fuels, travel deep into the lungs. Owing to their innate chemical properties and size, they can kill even at lower concentrations. No wonder during the past few years, people here have been desperately looking out for tools to assess the problem and to find ways to combat the menace.

   India: Missed Opportunties   

Yet, cutting pollution from vehicles is proving to be the toughest part of the pollution control challenge. Why?

  • Is it because we produce extremely polluting cars which should be henceforth banned?
  • Is it because government-owned refineries are flooding cities with dirty fuels?
  • Or is it because no one is really planning to meet the traffic needs of cities?

Interestingly, India began regulating vehicular emissions in 1991, much before other Asian countries had even begun the process. But then it fell behind, slowly losing speed even as the number of vehicles in the Indian roads skyrocketed, and pollution levels scaled unprecedented heights. Held back by a reluctant automobile industry, that fought hard to keep the standards lax, it adopted the Euro I standards as late as 2000— eight years after Europe!

Prodded repeatedly by the Supreme Court to introduce stronger regulations, the government finally came up with the Auto Fuel Policy in 2003. As of now, only 11 cities have implemented Euro III, while the rest of the country has only moved to Euro II. The goal is to nudge the 11 to adopt Euro IV by 2010, as the others reach the Euro III mark. The process is further slowed down by the government-owned refineries. There is a stubborn resistance from them to produce cleaner fuels needed to run the cleaner, less polluting vehicles.

   The Diesel Menace   

But, is India really making a whole-hearted attempt to shift to cleaner vehicle technologies? Why then is it favouring diesel over petrol? Diesel engines do have some attractive features. They are more fuel-efficient than petrol engines, deriving more energy per unit of fuel used. So till recently, they used to dominate the heavy-duty vehicles sector. But now, taking over the personal car segment. Analysts predict that diesel car sales will grow by almost 40-50 per cent by 2010.

Most frighteningly, the Indian government, till date, has no policy either to hold car companies or refineries accountable for the public health fallout.

It’s more about accessibility and mobility, than about 'transportation'

“Ivan Illich’s brilliant, classic, mind-blowing essay Energy and Equity, written in 1974, argues (among other things) that high speed is the critical factor that makes transportation socially destructive, that we have become dangerously overpowered by our technology. He calls for a society based around low-speed transport, having found that, at speeds faster than 15 mph, equity declines, the scarcity of both time and space increases, and the human and natural environment are degraded. Illich thus finds a contradiction implicit in the joint pursuit of equity and industrial growth.”

“Participatory democracy postulates low energy technology. Only participatory democracy creates the conditions for rational technology.”IVAN ILLICH (1923-2002)

“The model American puts in 1,600 hours (working to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes) a year to his car to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only three to eight per cent of their society's time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent. What  distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of lifetime for the majority, but more hours of compulsory  consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.

Amount of space required to transport the same number of passengers by car, bus or bicycle.

(Poster in the German city of Munster Planning Office, August 2001)

"Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man's metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well."

Access, not mobility
Movement in cities is not an end in itself. We move in order to gain ACCESS to people and things. But in car-oriented cities, activities tend to spread out. This forces people to travel further and further for the same level of accessibility as before.

Moving people, not cars.
We need to focus on moving people and goods rather than vehicles. In dense cities, public transport saves valuable space and energy compared to private transport, and can make a healthy profit at the same time. But cities need to nurture their public transport by giving them some priority on the road over cars. If buses are always caught in traffic then a vicious cycle begins, with bus riders abandoning public transport and adding to the traffic ja

    Reinventing Mobility     

We must understand that mobility, not more cars, is the need of the day. It is clear India will have to re-invent what the world understands as the driver of economy – not the cheapest, smallest, biggest or most fanciful car but the cheapest, cleanest, most affordable and comfortable way of travelling.

   Missing the point     

The real problem is not with the cars. It is with the way the government manages the transport system in cities. One glaring example is the current taxation policy. Instead of offering incentives to encourage bus transport, our government imposes higher taxes on buses compared to cars. In Delhi, a car pays only Rs 300 a year as tax, while a bus is charged more than Rs 13,000 – roughly 43 times more than a car! It is pretty clear that our policy makers do not take into account the social, health and environmental costs of motorisation. Why else would they continue with this distorted system that ends up taxing the bus, which moves the largest numbers of people in our city, more than the car, which drives few people but hogs valuable road space?

    Doing away with Diesel    

Diesel costs less than petrol, so auto companies are busy expanding their polluting diesel car fleet. This spells disaster. How? Let’s look at Delhi. It set an example to the rest of the country five years ago by saying no to diesel buses, and forcing the government to switch to the cleaner Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). But now, air pollution in the capital is reaching critical levels again. Why? Because a few thousand CNG-run buses cannot fix the damage being done by a few million diesel-run personal cars!

The Delhi cabinet has now decided to introduce an Environment Cess on diesel at the rate of 25 paise per litre. For starters, the cess will be imposed on diesel-run commercial vehicles. The cost of diesel per litre is the lowest in Delhi. With the money collected as cess, the government plans to set up a fund called the Environment Cess Fund to help the introduction of clean air policy. All other pollution infested urban centres must either go the Delhi-way, or find a suitable alternative.

So we must redffine the policy and reduce or completely waive off taxes on buses. What better way to ensure mobility for the majority, and not a handful of car-owners?

India can beat pollution if technology improves as fast as possible. It must leapfrog to the cleanest technology by switching fuels.


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In awe of automobiles