Carmageddon round the corner

Wednesday 30 November 1994

CARS have become the most prominent roadsign on the Indian economy's journey up the rocky road of economic liberalisation. The protagonists of these policies routinely iterate, along with other supposedly supportive figures, the increase in the number and varieties of privately owned 4-wheelers in the country as hard-driving proof of liberalisation's success.

Since the late '70s, many industrialised countries have given attention to mass public transport systems on considerations of fuel consumption, environmental pollution, and traffic management. While the trend has been especially marked in Western Europe, the UK seemed to hold out as an island of dissent, whose motorists, over the past 15 years, recorded the maximum private car mileage per head per year in Europe.

Given this background, the report publicised last fortnight by the London-based Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is remarkable. It called for radical policies which would effectively check the projected increase of privately owned road traffic in that country. The main concern of the report is that the prevalent private transport must be made to pay its already evident environmental and health costs.

The report, therefore, calls for a range of harsh financial disincentives to private transport over the next 10 years as well as stepped-up government investment to boost the capacity, convenience and reliability of public funded transport. These measures are conceived to limit overall traffic in AD 2020 to roughly the present level. The report assertively demands that all proposed road building in the UK be halted because geographical information surveys have proved that all road building programmes have only led to higher traffic.

Impressive as these measures are, it is important to understand the true significance of the Royal Commission's report. Cars and other artefacts of private transport are propped up by the great economic importance of their manufacturing and their ready middle- and high-income consumers the world over. Even so, as exemplified by the Royal Commission, even the most conservative of governments, motivated largely by environmental awarerness, have begun to ponder ways to check the hitherto divine right to drive within "sustainable" limits. Indian planners would do well to keep this realisation in mind.

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