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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sadly different trajectories!

This article tells you how in the west – in the US especially – the ‘car culture’ is slowly on the way out. It is well known that cars (privately owned cars, especially) are bad with a capital B, in terms of the congestion they cause, the pollution they are responsible for, the number of people they kill and maim for life, and the kind of social class division and tensions they create: especially in poor countries. More compact urban design and vastly improved public transportation would be unqualified blessings for us all. So it is tragic that China and India – which between themselves account for a third of the total human population – are going all out the way the USA did in the 1950s, buying cars to flaunt their new wealth and 'status' like there would be no tomorrow, because by the time they reach US-levels of per capita car ownership, more people would be dying of accidents and pollution than in any wartime situation short of a nuclear holocaust. Here are some statistics about what has been happening on Indian roads over a recent ten-year period. Do we care for our children? Do our ‘educated’ grown-up children care even about their own lives?

By the way, I have not yet received enough positive responses to the first part of the story I started with the last post to encourage me to continue!


Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

I thought about what exactly to write here for a while and I realized that there can be no ambivalency. Although I love to drive, if it comes to that or the environment, there can hardly be a doubt as to which is more important. I suppose (although I am pretty careful already) it is time to take a good look at my own carbon footprint!


Shilpi said...

Suvro da,
I dreaded the congestion on public roads in Calcutta, and it does seem that India and China are both headed along a disastrous path. Of course we'll never pick on the good habits and the admirable practices - but the bad ones don't take long to absorb...sometimes I wonder whether people would opt for public transport once they realise how effective good public transport can be (take the metro for instance or the state buses in Calcutta, which did charge a fair bit more - but the speed and the comfort of zooming through the otherwise jammed city) although I don't know really what exactly makes people identify with the things that they buy.

However I have to raise my eyebrows for this particular article in Worldchanging (the 'service envy' one being another one for many reasons). For one thing, the decline in car purchasing came about with the recession (not out of concern for the environment). Secondly, some states have been better at going green with a vengeance (California, Oregon, and Washington for instance) than others. So owning cars, I would argue, is still seen as a status symbol for people living in other states. Third, people don't use cars (and many don't buy them) when they are living in horribly congested cities like New York because there is no way to drive around anymore if one wants to be on time and even if one can inch along one can barely find a place to park and the public transport system is quite efficient (from what I have heard). In less well-connected areas (meaning not the big cities) people can do without a car but have to forfeit many visits to places which would be nice to visit. This is something that really never is stressed when people talk about the U.S. Even places that could have been less populated by cars by simply making good public transport systems (which take one to places other than Walmart or the mall) and by keeping cycle routes, and by making sure that car rental places do not charge one an arm and a leg - things could have been better. But as it is - if the change is coming - it's coming only in very specific regions and in exceptionally small doses. The emphasis on preservation and conservation and for keeping most public places clean and well-ordered - these are practices in which the the U.S probably leads the world....but for the bit on 'car owning' or for energy consumption - I'll have to disagree with reason.

And I'm adding two links.


The second is something that alarms me. Because with all the driving regulations and what seems to me to be very strict and well-implemented laws - the numbers are not pleasant.

Let's see whether this mile-long comment goes through.

Thank you, as always, for putting up the post...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Shilpi, the US has shown the worst possible path of 'development', nowhere more evident than in the consequences of producing, buying and driving cars on such an incredible scale. My point was that however painfully slowly, the trend just might be reversing, or at least flattening off (fewer people taking driving licences cannot be a function of the recession!). In any case, my point was not to hold up the US as an ideal, but to assert that by heading the same way, India and China are bringing doom upon hundreds of millions of people, and maybe eventually on mankind itself.

And Vaishnavi, once upon a time I used to love driving too (as I loved fighter aircraft!), but no longer: not after having seen so much and read so much of its evils for so long. You are still so young... God keep you safe.

Arghya Kamal Chatterjee said...

May be it is simple to say that we must live an ascetic life full of sacrifice, specially the new technological upbringings like car. Sacrifice is only possible only when you have reached the satisfaction with the optimum use of the unit like the people in US are doing now. Private vehicles have undoubtedly made life much simpler for us at least for the transportation point of view. If we are really concerned with pollution then it is not just car but also, the least bothered industries and increased rate of consumption of electricity at house hold by modern appliances like AC's (Most of the power generated in our country are thermal, which not only is a concern for pollution but also a big concern for the crisis of coal). The point of concern should not be accidents which are avoidable by well guided traffic rules. The statistics of increased rate of accidents per year do not show the increased number of vehicles but rather shows the increased number of law breakers.

Very interestingly, economic development depends more on the industrial products produced by a country and not on the agro products (Ricardo’s theory on Comparative Advantage in international market suggests so). So, why not have more cars in the country which is dreaming to get developed. More cars imply more revenue for the government, more industries and thus more employment. In most places in India sufficient public transport are not available, so people are left with no option but to use their own vehicle. It is frequently observed in newspaper that World Bank is funding for development of roads. But never have I come across any news where any fund was allotted for railways to develop more tracks and improve the average speed of train. Trains are the least pollution causing transport available so far. We can’t even blame private vehicle owners for consuming more fuel, because statistics show that the overwhelming majority of car owners have maximum fuel efficient cars (like Maruti 800, Maruti Alto, Hundai i10).

Thus, it must be first decided which is our primary concern development or pollution. Depending on the answer a solution can be chosen. Development without pollution is possible only when a huge pollution has already been made (like Europe is claiming to have reduced pollution in the last decade). The only alternative is the development of pollution free technology. But this is very uncertain, time taking and initially requires huge investment without the hope of return (which is not possible in a developing economy like India).

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for commenting after ages, Arghya. However, there are too many things I need to point out to you: maybe it should wait for a face-to-face. Just for the benefit of other readers, a few points:
1) All thoughtful people agree that 'development' which increasingly threatens people's health and safety is no development at all,
2) Nowhere are we talking about 'sacrifices'. Getting better public transport so that there is no genuine need for private cars is no sacrifice, except perhaps a 'sacrifice' of a chance to show off,
3)As an engineer, I didn't expect you to write something as silly as your last but one paragraph. One railway train consumes much, much less fuel and pollutes vastly less to transport 2,000 people than five hundred 'fuel efficient' cars! That's simple arithmetic.

There are several other such gross logical/factual errors in your comment. I hope you will find them yourself.

Shilpi said...

I do have some questions for Arghya Kamal Chatterjee - although I'm not sure whether he's being serious.

But just in case he is:
1. How exactly have private cars made travel easier from the transportation point of view? Which city are you talking about? And the very point of the post was to point out that we very badly need to set up efficient and reliable public transport systems in India.

2. So the carbon emissions are due to our household a/c units in India? Is that what you are saying? We indeed should do something about our overall energy consumption (given that even the official figures say that more than 400 million people don't even have electricity so there are some of us who are using more than we should)- but nowhere does the post say that we shouldn't. You're the one who seems to be mixing things. And do you have any reason to believe that cars aren't causing pollution in India? And where is all the oil going, shouldn't we be asking? And shouldn't we be concerned when India is the 4th largest consumer of oil? Or would you just go along with your message, "make and buy more cars?" Are you being serious?

3. What sort of development are you talking about? I don't know what to say about that point of yours. But...have you ever wondered why human beings stopped keeping slaves? If that seems to be disconnected, let me rephrase that (even though I don't know what you mean by "optimum use of the unit" in this case). So because the US has gone down the road of bringing about the degradation of the environment - we should follow? And where do you get the faulty idea that we can either be developed or else we can take care of pollution? If we don't take care of the latter (among the other environmental problems) what sort of development is going to take place? That is why it's so very essential to get your concepts straightened out. What do you mean by development? I've got to say that I'm somewhat amazed that you can quite earnestly believe that having more and more cars is a good thing and that cars don't really do much damage to the environment, and that they make 'life simpler'.

I won't even talk about a couple of other points.

And Suvro da, I'll comment on your response later (if I may)...but that bit about fighter planes and driving is a nice one. I always did wonder about the first one...

Thank you.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

See, Arghya: I warned you how your comment, being ill-composed, is wide open to misinterpretation! The older you grow in your professional life, the more keenly you will see how crucial it is to be able to say just what one wants to say - how important, that is, to learn a language well! No wonder I have had engineers in their fifties coming over to ask whether I could give them formal coaching in English writing and speaking... I refuse only because they baulk at paying me the fees I demand!

Ah, yes, Shilpi, fighter planes. Having to give over that love was one of the biggest wrenches in my life. It happened when I paused in admiring their beauty and power and started thinking more of what they were designed to do.

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

Isn’t it scary that the apparent fruits of progress are turning out to be most poisonous?

New Zealand ranks one of the highest in the list of countries by vehicles per capita. Though the Government carries out public interest advertisements from time to time encouraging people to use public transport but I think they too have accepted that fact that people are reluctant to use public transport. It is disappointing because at some point of time surely New Zealand’s pollution level will rise given the fact people want to use their own cars. The reasons for people’s reluctance are shallow mostly bordering on their individual convenience. In New Zealand, people simply cannot imagine life without a car. I am surprised because I think since NZ culture is more like Europe, and they could have had better public transport system like Europe I have heard has. I hear European public transport system is very good and better used. Not sure though because I have not visited Europe.

As far as India is concerned, I was pleasantly surprised to see better buses in Calcutta when I visited last year. I thought it was a long awaited welcome change. Traditionally, our buses and autos are a disaster not only for environment reason but I wonder who can either sit/stand properly inside our minibuses. In fact, coupled with bad roads those buses can kill people if not from road accidents but through bones/joint related diseases. In Delhi there was a huge overhaul of public transport system sometime back when Delhi changed over to CNG fuel. People dislike public transport system in Delhi (other than the newly opened Metro rail) because bus drivers, conductors and passengers are very badly behaved.

Whatever may be the issue, you have rightly pointed out the excessive use of private vehicles is polluting the environment and different Government’s reluctance to promote public transport is not helping the cause either. I can still understand probably the way countries such as India behave because of social/political reasons but it is actually appalling when I see countries like Australia or New Zealand having not so good public transport systems. I feel sad that we in the world don’t realise these things often.



Suvro Chatterjee said...

As students of economics, you and I should have no difficulty in figuring out why governments are so reluctant to clamp down on the production of private cars, Tanmoy. In India itself, automobiles is currently a boom sector: it is not only creating dollar millionaires by the score every year, and providing jobs to tens of thousands, but (and this is little mentioned), it is pouring money into the treasury by way of easy-to-collect and politically non-sensitive taxes! Public transport, on the other hand, costs much and provides low and slow returns (where there are any returns at all). On the other hand, life is very cheap, pollution and congestion are still not politically big issues, and hardly anyone outside the central cabinet bothers about the ballooning fuel import bill. So... the tragedy is that this collective myopia (lack of strong political will combined with deadly public unconcern) is proving to be so costly to so many. And nobody really cares, not even the parents of the thousands of silly teenagers on bikes who get themselves killed or crippled every year - in this country where parents supposedly love their children so much!

Arijit said...

Road accidents also happen due to ignorance of traffic rules. In India do we always follow traffic rules?
A very important rule is too switch off your mobile phone while driving.
We are too busy in our life, so why switch off the cellphone while driving. I have seen it with my own eyes , once in City Center a man was so busy with his cellphone that he couldn't also hear the SBSTC bus continuously blowing horn behind him.

Anirban said...

Prothom prothom gari chalabar prolovonta shamlano mushkil.Aamaro chilo. Aar shotti kotha bolte ki gari chalate aamar bhalo lage:)

Kintu gari thakar manei je gari kore shob jaygay jete hobe aemon kintu noy..khub odvut legechilo jokhon aekdin aami aamar Global CEO ke dekhlam cycle kore office aaste..onake jiggesh korlam-aapni cycle kore? Heshe bollen shorir aar environment-er pokkhe bhalo..aaro bollen je parle jaeno aamio chesta kori cycle chalabar:)

Kothata 5-6 bochor aagekar..aamar gari chalabar neshata kintu komeni tobe soptahe dudin aami cycle kore office jai :)hain, aami bharotborshei thaki:)aar aekhono cycle chalate bhaloi lage:)

Jodi ei forum-e karaor aemon shujog aashe, chesta korte khoti ki?

Anirban Banerjee

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Someday, if the roads are much safer again, and cars pollute much less, I might love to drive again, Anirban. But that is only daydreaming. Meanwhile, we all have to deal with the here and now...

Good that you have started cycling again. It's good for the body, the environment, and the pocket, too. I walk a great deal, cycle now and then, and rarely take out the car if the scooter will do. See if you can persuade a few friends to see things your way.