Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cars Cars Cars

Today we're talking cars. In the U.S. we're driving less. In India, it looks like people will be driving much much more. The reasons are quite different of course.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reported nationally a 3.1% decrease in driving between January 2008 and January 2009. In Pennsylvania that drop was 4.5% and in New Jersey 6.5%. Why? It's the economy, stupid. When money is tight, people drive less. When they are out of a job, they don't need to commute.

Taking a glass-half-full approach, perhaps when they drive less, people will see that biking and transit aren't so bad after all. Perhaps with the new investment in intercity rail and regional transit systems provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we can start to build a national transit system that will allow many more people to permanently reduce their driving.

Now, zooming halfway across the globe to India, the long-awaited Nano, produced by the Tata Group, is seen by many as nothing short of a revolution that will even the transportation playing field for India's vast population of working-class families. However, the New York Times' Green Inc. Blog questions of the car that will sell for about $2,000, "World’s Cheapest Car: Boon or Bane?"

The potential problem is that "the seemingly guaranteed success of the Nano may create more traffic and strain on India’s already rickety urban infrastructure." It is interesting to compare the hype around the Nano to the way that the automobile was hailed in the U.S. following World War II. The Green Inc. blog quotes one Indian reader, "I'm buying it because it gives a sense of freedom."

It sounds good to liberate a population of working-class people, allowing them to safely and efficiently get where they need to go. However, the streets of cities like Mumbai are already overcome with gridlock traffic. In many parts of India, the nation lacks serviceable roads. It is reasonable to question whether India may end up, in the not too distant future, in a similar position to the U.S. today:

...Where our roads are crumbling and our nation simply cannot afford to fix the massive highway system we have built.

...Where gridlock slows millions of commuters, and we have no alternative because our government never invested in an adequate mass transit system.

...Where automobile-related fatalities are the country's leading non-medical cause of death.

...Where people cannot afford gasoline, but have become so auto-dependent that there is no other choice.

The Green Inc. blog notes, “Indeed, debate over the Nano points up an achingly similar question that has long plagued richer, car-centric countries in the West: How soon until governments develop truly effective multimodal urban public transportation systems?”

No doubt India’s government and/or its private sector will have to start thinking about this question sooner rather than later. The fact is, cars only represent freedom… until they don’t anymore.

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