The anatomy of congestion

Travel today is relatively faster, and people across the world are travelling more than ever before. But at a giant cost: urban roads are choked with vehicles. The air throttles millions. While the affluent scramble for more road space, the not-so-lucky are getting cramped into increasingly smaller areas. The dream of mobility generated by the private motor vehicle is gradually turning into a nightmare of immobility, and pollution
The anatomy of congestion

-- (Credit: Ruhani Kaur / CSE)

Rows of human hands hanging on inside claustrophobic buses, trams and metros...Bodies packed like sardines, jostling against each other...Tempers at breaking point. And outside, more chaos - thousands of cars, jeeps, vans, two-wheelers, three-wheelers...all groaning through a choking haze of pollution in interminable traffic jams that test one's patience and endurance skills. On cramped roads that are virtual death-traps for the unwary pedestrian or bicyclist. Every day. Almost every hour. This is the city of today.

The scenario, however, is not unremittingly bleak. Travel today is relatively faster and people across the world are traveling more than ever before. But at a cost: urban roads are choc-a-bloc with vehicles. The air chokes millions. While the affluent scramble for more road space, the not-so-lucky are getting cramped into increasingly smaller areas. The dream of mobility generated by the private motor vehicle is gradually turning into a nightmare of immobility and pollution.

Crisis of mobility
In 1998, a consultation paper by the uk government on fighting traffic congestion and pollution through road user and parking charges estimated that 1.6 billion hours were lost by drivers and passengers on Great Britain's roads due to congestion in 1996: 80 per cent in urban areas. London, in fact, has been forced to ask motorists entering the city centre to pay a congestion tax of 8 from February 2003.

In Los Angeles, usa, a study by the Texas Transportation Institute says that hours lost by a peak-time traveler per year on road has increased from 47 in 1982 to 136 in 2000. The city also loses us $14635 million per year due to traffic congestion - and wastes more than 40 litres of fuel. Congestion today has gone from being essentially a localised peaking problem affecting a few drivers to a more widespread phenomenon that impacts almost all of us.

Rich nations have too many cars
Developing nations want the same


(in thousands)

Per capita GDP2
(in US dollars PPP) per

Number of vehicles1,000

US         132,4321 35,600 740
Japan 62,4381 26,100 640
Germany  42,8401 25,900 570
Italy    32,4531 25,100  N A
France 28,0601 24,400 520
UK 25,0291 24,500 410
Spain    17,4491 20,100 NA
Canada  14,9523 27,700 NA
Brazil      13,8273 7,400 190
Russia    13,6393 8,300 NA
Australia  9,9814 24,000 610
Korea     7,9083 4,000   32
China     5,1063 4,300 21
India       4,5653 2,500 30
Source: 1. Anon, Transport Statistics of Great Britain, 2002; 2. Anon, CIA World Factbook, 2002; 3. Anon, Automotive Industry 2001 and beyond, 2001; 4. Anon, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, 2003; 5. E A Vasconcellos, Urban Transport, Environment and Equity — the Case for Developing Countries, Earthscam Publications Ltd, London, 2001
Across the world, the desire to travel more and faster has grown with the surge in economies. While it has reached a plateau in developed nations, developing countries today account for more than 95 per cent of this growth, says Mobility 2001: World Mobility at the End of the Twentieth Century and its Sustainability, a report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The problem is that this augmentation in mobility rides almost entirely on private motor vehicles. According to the World Bank, motor vehicle ownership and use in developing countries is growing even faster than populations.

According to Mobility 2001, between 1950 and 1997, the global automobile fleet increased from 50 to 580 million vehicles. Developing countries, with about 85 per cent of the world's population, had only about 25 per cent of those vehicles (see table: Rich nations have too many cars). But with rapid economic growth, these countries are now adding vehicles to their existing fleets at rates as high as 10-30 per cent per year, compared to below 5 per cent for developed countries.

This rate of motorisation is too fast for existing infrastructure in developing nations to cope with, says the report. Also, cities in most developing nations have very high densities of population. While European cities tend to have population densities more than four times that of us urban areas, Asian cities are 14 times denser on average. Closely packed 'megacities' of more than 10 million people are now a defining characteristic of the developing world; in 2000, 15 of the 19 megacities in the world were in developing nations.

These cities bear the brunt of the mobility crisis. In India, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore account for about 5 per cent of the nation's population, but 14 per cent of its total registered vehicles. About 50 per cent of automobiles in Iran, Kenya, Mexico and Chile chug in their capital cities. Although data is rarely clear or comparable, downtown weekday traffic speeds in developing cities are dismal. They reportedly average 9 kilometres per hour (km/hr) or less in Seoul and Shanghai, 10 km/hr or less in Bangkok and Manila, and 17 km/hour or less in Kuala Lumpur and So Paolo.

The economic costs are formidable: Bangkok loses up to 6 per cent of its economic production - in terms of money - to congestion; in Brazil, congestion increases public transport operating costs by 10 per cent in Rio de Janeiro and by 16 per cent in So Paulo.

Chillingly, this state of affairs exists despite motorisation being still at a relatively early stage in most developing and transitional economies. Most developing countries have less than 100 cars per 10 people compared with 400 or more in the more industrialised nations. But they also face the danger of being transported into an extremely congested future.

Made to pollute?
When vehicles travel slower on
congested roads, they pollute more
per hour)
per kilometre)
(gramme per
Source: E A Vasconcellos, Urban Transport, Environment and Equity — the Case for Developing Countries, Earthscam Publications Ltd, London, 2001
The mobility dream may have just reached developing countries, but such is the rush of private vehicles on roads that most prevalent efforts to unclog the roads get bumped off the kerbside. The future also appears grim because in many ways the transportation profile in developing countries is completely unique. Take the case of taxis and three-wheelers. They are called intermediate public transport (ipt). Neither 'private' like cars nor 'public' like buses, squeezed between poor mass transport services and growing numbers of private vehicles, three-wheelers are a prominent feature of traffic in Indian - and South Asian - cities. Often badly maintained, run on adulterated fuels and extremely polluting, they pose a serious threat to the environment. According to Mobility 2001ipt's share in urban transport varies from a low of about 5 per cent of motorised trips in Dakar and Taipei to some 40 per cent in Caracas and Bogota and as high as 65 per cent in Manila and several other southeast Asian cities.

Traffic planners and policymakers today face a major dilemma: what do we do with vehicles like these? Indeed, this is part of a larger challenge: exactly how should they tackle the grimy confusion of private automobiles, public transport vehicles (that range from small minivans to large buses)and non-motorised transport in a manner that will decrease congestion and increase mobility? Most crucially, how can costs to the external environment, such as toxic emissions that prey upon public health, be minimised?

Down To Earth