The Next Big Challenge: Latent Demands for Personal Transport Ready to Explode
Evening rush hour traffic outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai. Photo by Vikas Hotwani.

Evening rush hour traffic outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai. Photo by Vikas Hotwani.

If the entire world starts living like a North American does, we would need three more planets to fulfill everyone’s needs. However, if everyone starts living like an African, only two-thirds of our existing planet would suffice.

‘Earth from Above’ photo exhibition by Yann Arthus Bertrand

At present, India’s scenario is roughly equivalent to a planet where every person’s consumption pattern is slowly escalating to match up to that of a North American. With rising income levels, the change in consumption patterns touches every aspect of life, including the choice of transport systems. Today, we are practically sitting over a demand curve that’s ready to escalate. Here’s why…

1. Owning to a large discrepancy in income levels, there’s a mammoth underlying latent desire and aspiration to own a personal vehicle. This means that as soon as income levels reach a mark where it’s possible to own a car (even if it’s on a down-payment), people will go for it, not caring about issues such as sustainability or the availability of infrastructure.

2. Now that the Tata NANO has hit the market with its world’s cheapest car, that tipping point when those with modest earnings can purchase a car will be reached much sooner. This means we have far less time than we think we do. Simultaneously, income levels are rising and prices are falling.

3. The public transport system (especially in Mumbai) needs considerable attention on the parameters of safety and comfort. This will act as a catalyst when it comes to pushing more and more people towards owning private transport.

With no interventions, the demand and sale of cars will continue to rise and clog the roads even further. Building flyovers and the much-hyped Bandra-Worli sea link can be short-term relief mechanisms but not the final solution.

Then what?

A more effective strategy is to make the maintenance — not just the ownership — of personal transport an expensive deal. For instance, apart from the fuel costs, owning a car in a city like Mumbai is not as costly an affair as compared to other cities.

  1. Parking charges lie at Rs 25 to Rs 200 an hour (depending on where you park). Increasing the parking charges can dissuade people from opting for cars, and the extra money collected can be used to develop better roads and organised parking spaces.
  2. Singapore, for instance levies a road tax on cars. Though it’s a small amount, it increases exponentially after the car is more than 10 years old. In combination with this operates a strict policy for periodical checks of every vehicle.
  3. The registration fee for the car in Mumbai, again, doesn’t match up to international standards. Singapore, for instance, not only has a registration fee, but also an additional registration fee, which creates artificial inflation when it comes to car prices.

The above mentioned points are only suggestions from other cities that, if emulated blindly, can cause more chaos than order in Mumbai. The suggestions must be supplemented with adequate development of high-quality, high-capacity public transport systems.

The point here is that it’s crucial to make personal transport maintenance more expensive today than it was yesterday because vehicles by themselves are getting cheaper. And infrastructure is already feeling the pressure.

We need to widen our perspective of resources. Fuel is a resource, but so are public spaces and roads. With scientific and technological advances, we will find alternate sources of fuel. But space is finite. We have just one Earth, and it can hold only so many cars. So think: It’s either you, or the car.

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