Mobility empowers

Published: Friday 31 October 2008

Automobility enervates, because more cars mean more congestion, less mobility

IN NOVEMBER 2004, the journal Nature published a research paper tracing how endurance running was linked to the evolution of our species. Two scientists had analyzed hominid fossils, and found endurance running unique to humans among primates as well as most quadruped mammals. They compared hominid fossils with skeletons of the genus Homo, and argued that endurance running played a crucial role in the survival and evolution of our species. It provided the mobility for a greater range for food and shelter.

Mobility increases opportunities. It only became more crucial with civilization. Travellers and traders exchanged scientific knowledge and food crops between different peoples, providing the building blocks of our world. Horses, camels and bullocks, and then ships and railways, took the potato from Peru to all parts of the world, making it a staple. Urban life is built on mobility. In today's world, the most powerful people tend to be the most mobile, traversing continents over mid-air breakfast. The virtual mobility of the Internet and the mobile phone has empowered the rich as much as the poor.

Economists have long talked of how, the world over, people invest surplus income in transport. For the latter part of the last century, this has gone into the private automobile. It was the car in Europe and North America, and the two-wheeler in Asia. With the growth of its economic pelf, Asia is fast changing two wheels for four. It is only now finding out what Europe and several North American cities discovered three decades ago: that growth of private vehicles ultimately restricts mobility. The traffic jam seriously inhibits productivity and harms public health with auto emissions.

While cities in the West learned their lessons and invested in public transport, congested roads and the parking nightmare are seen in India as marks of economic growth. One of the largest selling daily newspapers, in a futuristic projection of India as a sci-fi fantasy, mentioned that parking would still be a problem in India 2050. Such thinking has clouded government policy at a terrible price--paid on the road. Indian cities are headed towards an immobile future. But there are some good signs. Most city managers see political opportunity in public transport; they are putting their money where their mouths are.

The roadblock is India's auto industry, which refuses to drag itself out of the car age. It stands to lose plenty, because if it does not reshape its business, it will lose to international players.

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