How many more cars can we sustain on our roads?

We have to be very realistic about what can be done. Certainly it would help if the metro express
became a reality at the earliest possible, and be relatively easy of access, comfortable, and affordable to the majority of the population

In the nearly two decades that we have been going back and forth about an efficient and acceptable public transport system – light railway to metro express – the numbers of cars on our roads have practically exploded. We do not even need to bother about the statistics: anyone who travels to work knows that the daily journeys for this purpose have become a quasi-nightmare.

Traffic congestion, inordinately lengthy travelling times for the short distances that we have to cover, slowdowns when there is a sudden unexpected heavy rainfall or a road accident – these are some of the realities that is the common experience of many of us. And going by the present trend, unless we develop a public transport system that will be attractive to all types of commuters in terms of physical access, comfort, price and security, the transport scenario seems to be heading towards even more gridlock.

But we are not alone in facing this problem: as far back as November 2012, an article on the subject of car usage in the English paper The Guardian had a question as its title: Can we bypass global gridlock? This was premised on forecasts made about the number of cars ‘roving our planet by 2050: ranging from 2 billion (Japanese Institute of Energy Economics) to 4 billion according to Bill Ford, chair of the Ford Motor Company.

The assumption taken into consideration was the knowledge that the world’s population is growing and becoming increasingly urbanized: 9 billion population by 2050 according to the UN, three quarters of whom were expected to live in towns and cities — where the worst traffic nightmares take place. Bill Ford’s has not been the only voice saying that we cannot go on adding more cars to our already congested roads – coming from the chair of a major car manufacturer, this is indeed a wake-up call if ever there was one.

There are also some sobering realities about this consumerist urge and pressure to be a private car owner, as highlighted in another article in The Conversation a few days ago, titled: ‘End of the road? Why it might be time to ditch your car’. How many of us know that around the world the average car is stationary 96% of the time? In fact, notes the article, ‘a car is typically parked at home 80% of the time, parked elsewhere 16% of the time, and on the move just 4% of the time. And that doesn’t include the increasing time we spend at a standstill in traffic’. The funny thing is that despite actually using them less, we own more cars than ever.

So we add to the problem of choking ‘our cities and harming our health, finances and environment by continuing to waste our resources on these increasingly dormant vehicles’. But there’s more to it still, for ‘It’s not just the car itself that’s wasted. Consider the resources and infrastructure – both private and public – needed to design, mine, manufacture, ship, sell, fuel, move, store, secure, insure, regulate, police, maintain, clean, repair and dispose of all these cars.

‘And David Owen, a staff writer with The New Yorker, has called cars “consumption amplifiers”. They are emblematic of a hyper-consumerist lifestyle that doesn’t really make us any happier’. Which is a fact. How can a big metallic box bring happiness in one’s life? However new and gadget filled it is, it becomes second hand as soon as it hits the road!

No wonder some of the questions being asked about the car epidemic – for that’s what it is – by the panel discussion that The Guardian sponsored included: can society possibly function with so many people driving so many cars?; is global gridlock inevitable?; will the transport of basic items such as food and medicine become a fraught and unpredictable challenge?

It highlighted the key discussion points that focused on options to solve the problem as follows:

More sharing – Fewer cars will be used by more people. Car clubs, car pooling and flexible hire schemes will proliferate. Single-occupant journeys may be regulated.

More sustainable vehicles – Cars will be lighter, powered by smaller engines or alternative means of propulsion. A split may emerge between short-range urban cars and long-range highway vehicles.

Smarter cars – Electronically governed cars will “platoon” into road-trains. Safety systems will avoid most of the accidents that trigger tailbacks. Fully automated cars will adhere to speed restrictions and never block junctions.

Better integration – Multimode transport hubs will make it easier to switch among car, bicycle, tube, train, bus and walking.

Better fuels – The transport fuels will come from multiple sources – electricity, hydrogen and biofuels – and will gradually become more renewable.

In a culture and a country where the car has become a status symbol, we have barely begun to address the problems and realities flagged in the articles referred to. We are doing the exact opposite by an unbridled acceleration in the increase of the fleet of cars locally. What is clear is that only some of the options mentioned above will ever be available to us, and in any case our resources will never match those of the advanced countries. So we have to be very realistic about what can be done. Certainly it would help if the metro express became a reality at the earliest possible, and be relatively easy of access, comfortable, and affordable to the majority of the population.

The new government has many priorities, but there can be no doubt that an efficient and attractive public transport should figure at the top end of its agenda for the country.

TP Saran

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