Monday, September 15, 2008

Traffic Sucks

I apologize for the lame post titles lately. I blame the jet lag and the dial up connection.

But traffic does indeed suck. Every time we step outside, my nerves end up rubbed raw by the horror that is Bombay traffic.

And as we drive, I keep wondering, have we brought the worst sides of industrialization to India, instead of the best?

Several months ago, Siddhartha Shome published a piece in Breakthrough regarding Tata's plan to start producing $2,500 cars. Shome supported the plan and suggested that Western environmentalists are hypocritical for extolling Priuses in the United States while chastising Tata for producing a cheap car that gets more miles to the gallon than the Prius.

At the time, I agreed with Shome. Who are Western environmentalists to get on their soap boxes and tell Indians that you shouldn't drive cars that are way more environmentally friendly than 99% of cars in the United States? Wouldn't it be great if Indians started driving more of these ecologically friendly Tata Nanos and gave up their 30-year old gas guzzling polluters?

But once in Bombay, I realized the truth. In India, a 30-year old gas guzzling polluter is never going to be sent to the scrap yard. It will be driven and driven and driven until it dies. Then it will be fixed and driven another 10 years until it dies again. At which point it will be fixed and driven until it literally disintegrates.

So the Tata Nano isn't a replacement for a vehicle already on the road. It's an additional car on the road. And there's the rub.

Because if this were just about the environment, I'd feel uncomfortable telling India, "You don't all get to have cars."

But this is not about the environment. This is about quality of life.

And the truth is, the quality of life is getting worse and worse with every new car that ends up on the roads. The traffic is so bad that merely going outside has become a giant headache.

Forget rush hour. Any hour of the day, the traffic is maddening.

Bombay doesn't need more cars. What it does need is a better public transit system. At present, the train system is a relic from the British Colonial days. And the trains are so crowded, that people are cramped together, and practically falling off the trains. It's so bad that my relatives refused to even take me on a train.

"Why isn't there a proper subway system?" I asked.

"Not enough money."

Of course.

The problem is, a lot of corporations stand to gain from putting more Indians behind the drivers seat. Residents of Bombay may lose out, but Ford, Tata, Honda, and Toyota all win. So there is a keen interest in foreign investment in cars for India.

By contrast, companies don't stand to gain by developing a public transit system. In fact, the better the public transit system, the more car companies lose out.

I think the solution must be, then, to find a way to semi-privatize the public transit system here in Bombay. Because the government doesn't have the money to improve things. If there is a way to create an incentive for corporations to invest their money in public transit, then the system will be updated. Without private investment, I'm not sure the system will ever be improved.

Even if that's not the solution, it's clear that something has to be done. And fast. And that more cars aren't going to make anyone happy. Except for the CEOs of Tata, Honda and the like.


Burbanmom said...

Yikes. How crazy does traffic have to be for someone from L.A. to call it insane?!?!?

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

That's what I was thinking too!

A former colleague spent a few weeks in India on business last year. He came back just completely frazzled and said "if you ever go to India, don't go anywhere near the roads".

Joyce said...

How about private or semi-privatized bus systems? Do they have those? It would be easier to do than trains, it seems to me. But listen to me; I'm such a problem-solving fanatic that I'm trying to advise people in a country I've never visited!

ib mommy said...

Funny you should write about this.... I just opened my Nat Geo and there is an article about India's new superhighway. Haven't read it yet..... I'm supposed to be working!

Anonymous said...

It's hard, isn't it. I would consider all of my closest friends "environmental" - some to a much greater extent than others - but we still can't agree on the benefits of certain innovations like these. On the one hand, the small cars are so much more efficient, and represent the simple car of the future, and on the other, we've got the problems that you are talking about with road congestion. I guess it all comes down to context and place. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and observations from India!

Anonymous said...

Seems typical of a developing country striving to achieve the "more advanced" lifestyle of the west. During the Olympics, the Chinese government decided that cars with even-numbered license plates can drive on one day and those with odd-numbered license plates can only drive the next day. So for a month, the traffic went down by half and pollution descreased as well. The residents there suddenly realized that their commuting lives sucked before the Olympic games. Perhaps there are better ways.

A while ago, I saw a short documentary on Bogata, Columbia. The majoy transformed the whole city by transforming its public transit system instead of building more highways. There are now different types of busses, expresses ones that take people across towns and local busses that stop more often. But all busses have priority on the roads over cars. This increased public transist riders by multiple folds. People respond to incentives. If one has to live in a day to day traffic nightmare, halfing the time it takes to go from A to B can be a great incentive.

Anyway, just my armchair opinion. The reality is always much much thornier :)

Anonymous said...

Hi !

Just found your blog and its making for interesting reading.

Nothing is the way it seems - and this is specially true for India - here is a recent article about the Tata Nano factory land and about local farmers protesting about their land being taken away for the factory.

-Bhavna Mehta

Going Crunchy said...

I have nothing really productive to add other then I'm enjoying your posts on the topic. It is always interestng to really flesh out your information with first hand accounts. Shan