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Cars and chaos

 | November 18, 2011

In Delhi alone, 1,000 cars are added on the roads every day. It is not very different in the other cities.

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Strangely, despite steep increases in petrol prices this year, there appears to be little let-up in congestion on Indian roads. The car boom that began several years ago continues merrily.

There are no less than 30 companies in the country manufacturing 120-odd models of cars, each in many variants.

Quietly encouraging this is the government, which benefits every time a plant for producing cars is set up. The result is worsening traffic chaos on the roads, even in towns and smaller cities.

While in a country like India with its huge population and millions of poor, the conveyance of choice should be mass public transport, preferably one that operates under the surface, the attention has been largely on privately-owned vehicles, two-wheelers in their hundreds of thousands.

Incredible as it may sound, Kolkata which got the country’s first underground metro rail two decades ago has not gone in for any significant expansion. The single north-south corridor with which the system was inaugurated still remains the only line.

It is only very recently that Bangalore got its rapid rail system, with Delhi having had one since a few years. Admittedly, the Delhi Metro is not just world class, but also pretty extensive with more routes being planned.

It takes little intelligence or imagination to understand that since most Indian cities have less than 20 per cent of the total area as road space (compared to the desired 33 per cent), the best way to move people is through a wide network of public transport that includes buses and trains, maybe even boats. Such modes of transportation could save a mind-boggling amount of road space.

Of equal concern is the fact that gasoline supplies will eventually run out. When America and Europe were first becoming addicted to private vehicles, the fear of fuel shortages was not an issue.

The United States destroyed its railways to promote the car. Why, Ford was responsible.

Even in China, cars are now slowly replacing bicycles in the name of development.

That Europe and Japan did not allow their public-transportation systems to go to seed has helped stabilize their economies since the first oil shock in 1973.

However, India known for its penchant for American models, ignored European-Japanese blueprints for transport.

Drastic steps needed

In India, the 1990s economic reforms led to higher wages and greater disposable incomes, and these encouraged the middle-class to own vehicles.  Indians equate the ownership of a private vehicle with higher social status as well convenience.

Also, there is the question of social hierarchy. Can a low-salaried clerk and a vice president working in the same firm be seen together on a train or bus?

It is therefore not surprising that in Delhi alone, 1,000 cars are added on the roads every day.  It is not very different in the other cities, with the roads in each getting impossibly clogged.  The ridiculously low priced Tata’s Nano car can only worsen traffic as it seen as a substitute for two-wheelers.

Some years ago, London imposed a congestion tax on private cars and managed to reduce the number of vehicles entering the city centre. Manhattan has such prohibitive parking fees that car owners think twice before driving there. In Singapore it can be more expensive to get a car licence than to buy a new vehicle!

Obviously, the political will to decongest the roads is lacking. Otherwise, India would have by now had an excellent public transport in place. Why the rivers and canals in some of the cities could have been efficiently converted into waterways.

What is urgently needed are drastic steps to ease traffic. Otherwise, cities and towns could get even more hellish.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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