Cars vs. Buses: Do we have a choice any longer?

By Abhijit M.

‘Global warming’ is a known word at least amongst the educated now. Those who have heard of it have at least a slight idea that it means something is wrong with our environment. Every college going kid in India has heard of it, as environment is a compulsory subject in colleges these days. Al Gore has made a much publicized film on it. Most, if not all, world leaders have read the warnings by renowned climate scientists that it is going out of human control, threatening the very existence of life on earth. Still, the world keeps going as if nothing is going to happen.

Global warming has already started having its impact on India. The floods during the monsoon of 2007 in Mumbai, the worsening floods in the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins, the increase in the number and intensity of cyclones in the eastern coast of India, the disappearing islands of Sunderbans due to rising sea levels, the receding Himalayan glaciers and rising temperatures all over the country are just some glimpses of the worrying picture. This year, in 2009, temperature in most cities in Maharashtra state was 5oC above the average.

The reason for this is well known – the increased greenhouse effect due to the increased concentration of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in the environment. Where is this increase in CO2 and CH4 coming from? The answer is simple: through the burning of fossil fuels – primarily oil, petroleum products and coal.

An important culprit – vehicular pollution

The Internet is flooded with “fwd” emails suggesting all kinds of ways of saving power to “save” the earth from global warming: using black computer screens instead of white screens, using CFL bulbs instead of fluorescent bulbs, using electric cars, hybrid cars, conducting tree plantations drives, and so on. Unfortunately, none of these mails says a word about doing something to stop one of the biggest causes of global warming: the burning of fossil fuels by a growing number of vehicles.

It is well established now that more than 20% of the world’s CO2 emissions are due to vehicular pollution. The biggest culprit is the United States: it produces one quarter of the global carbon emissions, and motor vehicles are responsible for almost a quarter of these emissions. Australia is another big polluter whose per person pollution level is just below the United States and nearly five times the world average, and the transport sector is the third largest as well as one of the fastest growing sources of the nation’s emissions. Yet these are the very countries that have refused to sign the Kyoto protocol, which only demands slight cuts in emissions by the developed countries.

Now, in their race to copy the American way of life, even underdeveloped countries like India and China are increasingly emitting more and more greenhouse gases: since 1990, China’s and India’s emissions have more than doubled, and China has now overtaken the United States to become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The rapid increase in GDP growth rates of these countries has led to big increases in the wealth of the middle and elite classes of these countries, and so the number of vehicles and carbon emissions has also been on rise. China has around 50 million vehicles on the road and is soon expected to become the biggest car market in the world, crossing the United States.

The money involved in automobile and related industries like oil industry, highway and flyover construction industry, dealers and repair shops, is huge. Corporations are driven solely by profits, their only desire is to increase production and accumulate profits. With billions of dollars of profits at stake, these corporations are only interested in producing and selling an ever increasing number of cars, and hence an increasing consumption of more and more oil, ignoring the threat of global warming. It is these giant corporations and their interests of profiteering who the chief culprits for the global warming crisis which is threatening the very survival of humanity.

The “American Dream of Freedom on Wheels”

The beginnings of this great worldwide automobile boom were made in the USA in the 1920s. The automaker General Motors (GM) began a covert campaign to undermine the popular rail-based public transit systems that were ubiquitous in and around the country’s bustling urban areas. At that time, only one in 10 Americans owned cars and most people traveled by trolley and streetcar. Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s president at the time, declared, “We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can…turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars.” And GM did just that. With help from Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, Mack Truck and Phillips Petroleum, by 1955, it had forced the closure of most trolleys and streetcars, despite public opinion polls showing that most people favoured the expansion of rail based public transport systems. Simultaneously, using its political clout, it got the government to fund the building of roads from coast to coast. And GM’s promotional films began showcasing America’s burgeoning interstate highway system as the realization of the so-called “American dream of freedom on wheels.”

As the dream came true for the car making companies, it became a nightmare for the people. The increasing number of cars led to increasing problems of traffic congestion, pollution and accidents. This phenomenon did not stop at the borders of the United States. It spread to the European countries. When markets in the West got saturated, the car making companies turned East. With ‘Globalization’, this American dream got a new boost. Now it was the turn of third world countries like India to be the targets of the automobile corporations. Like in the United States, in all these countries, governments facilitated this boom in private cars by providing huge subsidies in the form of building the necessary infrastructure – roads, highways, flyover, car parking lots.

Today both foreign and Indian car makers are targeting the Indian car market in a big way – 15 lakh cars are sold annually in India, making India’s passenger car market one of the fastest growing in the world. Now Tata is hoping to expand this market further by making a ‘cheap’ car – his mantra for selling “Nano” is that he is fulfilling the ‘dream’ of the Indian middle class. Never mind the resulting congestion, pollution, and further increase in global warming. The American Dream has just got Indianized.

With the earth facing global ecological devastation, it is obvious that the lifestyle promoted by this ‘American Dream’ is simply unsustainable, both for America and India, actually for entire planet Earth.

The Alternative: Reducing the number of vehicles

If mankind is to survive the global warming crisis, the carbon emissions must be drastically reduced. One way of doing that is to sharply reduce the number of vehicles on the roads. (Of course, this is not sufficient; it is only one of the many measures that urgently need to be taken). One simple way of reducing the number of vehicles is improve public transport. A bus can carry 50 people, thus reducing the need for 50 private vehicles, thereby considerably reducing carbon emissions and pollution. The case for buses becomes stronger from the perspective of the reduced pollution involved in manufacturing one bus as compared to fifty cars or two-wheelers; and it becomes even more stronger if one considers the environmental cost of building high capacity roads for cars as against low capacity roads for buses. An increasing number of vehicles also demands wider roads and more parking spaces, which means that roadside trees are cut and parks are transformed into parking lots, thus adding to global warming woes; on the other hand, the opposite – replacing private vehicles by public transport – leads to reduction of congestion and creation of open spaces, making it possible to restore greenery thus further countering global warming.

Need to subsidize public transport

If people are to be enticed into using public transport in place of their private vehicles, bus services must be good, must be available round the clock, must be cheap, and must have good connectivity, that is, buses must be available to every corner of the city. This means the number of buses must be high. In such a situation, it may so happen that the occupancy may sometimes be low on some routes, and during odd hours. With low cost, high availability and occasional low occupancy, there is always a chance of the public transport service running up losses.

In today’s world of ‘free markets’, the emphasis is on ‘profitable undertakings’. However, if public transport aims to run for profit, then it can never be attractive enough for people to shift to it from their private vehicles: because the frequency of bus services will be poor, buses will be crowded, bus services to many places will be poor or non-existent.

Public bus service must be cheap from another perspective too: it is an essential service like education and health, and must be affordable to the poor. Such a bus service increases their mobility, enables them to save a considerable amount of time and thus increases their efficiency. Increased investment (erroneously called ‘subsidies’ in the free market lingua of today) in welfare services by the state helps people realize their inherent potential, helping them create more wealth in the long term, which will be much more than the ‘subsidy’ invested on them.

Therefore, to be an effective alternative, public transport must be subsidized by the government. Chennai is one good example, where the City Corporation and the State Government subsidize all capital expenses. That explains why one can travel 46 kms for just Rs.7 in Chennai, while it costs Rs.23 in Pune.

But that’s not enough!

To reduce the number of vehicles on the roads, having a good public transport system is not sufficient. Simultaneously, in order to discourage people from using private vehicles, some form of restrictions on their use must be imposed. Some of the possible measures that can be taken are: congestion taxing, green cess on fuel, high parking charges, reducing parking spaces, banning entry of cars in commercial centers to create walking plazas, high ownership charges, restricted entry during rush hours, etc.

Many cities around the world, from Singapore and Stockholm to London and Rome, have introduced congestion taxing, which means charging a fee for entering designated areas of the city, normally the city’s commercial area. Cities that have implemented congestion taxing have reported traffic volume reductions of between 10-30 %. Singapore has also introduced high annual road tax, custom duties, high parking charges, and heavy vehicle registration fees. As a result, and despite having one of the highest per capita incomes in Asia, fewer than 30% of Singaporean households own cars. Many European cities too have adopted similar measures.

Promoting cycling

The crisis of global warming is so acute that it is not sufficient to reduce the number of private vehicles on the roads, actually the entire transport sector needs to be downsized. This calls for an entirely new approach to transportation planning for the entire economy.

One measure that is being adopted in Europe with some success is promoting cycling. Cycling is not only a clean and energy efficient transport mode, it is also a very efficient way of using road space. And of course, its health benefits are enormous: it not only reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, it also helps control weight. Many European cities are spending billions of dollars on cycling policies: promoting cycling use, improving infrastructure for cycling like having separate and good roads for cycles, integrating cycling with public transport use, and other such measures. Simultaneously, they are adopting transport policies to make it difficult to commute within the city by private cars. This has seen considerable success in some countries: for instance, in Netherlands, from one-third to half of all journeys are made by bicycles, and in Denmark one in six. Now

Other benefits of reduced congestion

The impact of emissions from vehicles on people’s health is enormous. Car exhausts release a range of toxic substances including carbon monoxide, benzene, lead, and tiny suspended particles; it is now well established that these lead to a sharp rise in respiratory diseases, especially in children; apart from that, the pollutants also affect the heart, the central nervous system and the immune system of the body.

Therefore, restricting the number of vehicles in a city leads to considerable improvement in quality of life for its residents: apart from the health benefits, it also leads to a sharp drop in accidents.

The case for free public transport

Advocates of the free-market conspiracy have always been telling us that “There are no free lunches”. With the recession looming large and governments all over the world spending trillions of dollars trying to save the rich, we know today that free lunches are unavailable only for the poor; the rich even get free desserts.

If governments can spend billions of dollars bailing out corporations, they can surely spend a few million dollars on taking steps to drastically reduce the number of private vehicles on the roads, as that would sharply reduce global warming which is pushing the world towards catastrophic conditions. In fact, the need of the hour is to make public transport entirely free. The benefits are huge. Leave aside the consequent drastic improvement in quality of life due to improved air quality, no congestion, huge open spaces even in cities which can then be converted into gardens, peace of mind due to drastic reduction in risk of accidents, all of which cannot be measured in monetary terms; for a country like India, this is also a very viable proposition commercially. For, the foreign exchange savings, savings in oil consumption, and savings in medical bills from improved air quality and reduced accidents will be far more than the cost of providing this free transport.

Many cities all over the world have recognized this. More than 20 cities around the world runs some or the other type of free public transport today. Some of these are in the United States, even though this country is infamous for not supporting public transport policies! The actual cost of providing free transport is much less than on paper, because as people shift from private cars to public transport, expensive investment in street widening and parking facilities no longer need to be made.

The Pune Situation

The city of Pune serves as an excellent example of how the current pattern of ‘development’ can kill a city. In a city of 50 lakh people, there are now more than 23 lakh vehicles. Of which around 16 lakh are two wheelers while nearly 3.5 lakh are four wheelers. The number has doubled from around 11.5 lakhs to 23 lakhs in just four years, from 2004 to 2008. Thus the number of vehicles in the city is growing at the rate of 18%. The growing traffic congestion has made the city one of the most polluted in the country, and according to statistics provided by Pune Police, on the average at least one person dies every day in road accidents.

The central reason for this spiraling growth in the number of private vehicles is the dismal state of the city public transport system. This can be well understood by a comparison with Mumbai, where there is good public transport: the number of vehicles in Mumbai is less than in Pune, despite the fact that the population is 5 times that of Pune. For nearly 10 years, the number of public transport buses (PMPML) in Pune city has been stagnant at around 1000. On top of it, the buses are in a rickety shape, and rate of breakdowns is also very high. This, together with corruption and inefficiency of the PMPML, has resulted in such a terrible public transport system that whoever can afford it purchases a two wheeler or a four wheeler to commute. There are valid reasons to believe that powerful vested interests, in the form of the strong presence of automobile companies in Pune and the strong business interests of politicians who themselves are automobile distributors and road contractors, are behind this dismal state of affairs in the PMPML. They have seen to it that the public transport system remains in shambles, to create scope for the growth of automobile sector and the construction of more and more roads and flyovers.

Just a small tax of Rs.2000 on each car in the city can generate more than Rs.700 crores for the exchequer. The budget of the public transport system in the city is just Rs.400 crores. This means that the city bus service can be made entirely free with just this small tax on the car owners. The political will to do this is the crucial factor that is missing. Considering the strength of the vested interests bent upon sabotaging the development of a good and cheap public transport system in the city, it will take immense public pressure to reverse the policies.

Conclusion

Nature will not give us another chance. There is no choice left for Humanity, but to stop burning of fossil fuels, NOW! among other measures, this demands big investments from the governments of the world in improving the public transport and imposing restrictions on use of private vehicles. Considering the urgency of the problem of global warming, if we don’t take these measures today, tomorrow will be too late.

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