In my city, without my car

From an object of desire, cars will turn into an asset of shared mobility

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Monday 15 May 2017

Car is one modern gizmo that has powerfully changed the shape of cities and architecture of buildings since its invention. Without the car we would still be designing walkable cities like Chandni Chowk in Delhi and constructing buildings without space to park cars. Only cars allow cities to sprawl, and roads to widen to push out walkers, cyclists and public transport users. This transmutation is locking in enormous pollution, carbon and energy guzzling in the infrastructure.

But cars shaping our lives is not an inevitable destiny which runs the politics around our transport infrastructure and fiscal sops. There are already signs of a big disruption in car-based auto mobility in the future.

Over the next 25 years cars for personal use will become increasingly unattractive. All recent transport sector policies in India, from smart cities to Delhi decongestion plan, advocating designing of cities and roads for people and not for vehicles, need not be glib talk. Even hard numbers from McKinsey show that overall car sales will grow globally but the annual growth rate will drop from 3.6 per cent over the past five years to 2 per cent by 2030. What’s going on?

The car itself is transforming from an object of personal possession to an asset of new and shared mobility services. In future, people might not own a car personally but use it as and when needed—like the Ola-Uber phenomenon. Already the global car industry is looking at business models beyond traditional car sales to meet on-demand and integrated mobility services. The car itself is becoming a well-connected digitised data centre linked to a large mobility network. According to forecasts, car numbers on road will decline, but the industry will reinvent to sell large fleets and replacement fleets for shared mobility. Smart public transport, including intelligent buses, will be built to scale.

The changing attitude of young consumers is another factor that will lead to disruption in car-based auto mobility of the future. Already surveys in the US, Japan and London have shown a drop in driving licence numbers in the age group of 16 to 24. A growing number of people are shunning car ownership. The sense of individual freedom and liberty that have glorified cars is losing the sheen and smart connectivity through the Internet and flexibility in choosing affordable mobility solutions are becoming more attractive. Cars are losing out to smarter travel choices. In Delhi we have found that most riders of shared buses are professionals and car users.

An even bigger disruption in this pollution- and climate-challenged world is the wisdom of having less car-dependant cities. This idea might seem utopian today but it is shaping into reality. Consider these facts: Oslo will ban cars from city centre permanently from 2019; Madrid has already banned cars on 24 busy roads; big Chinese cities and Singapore have capped car sales; London will ban diesel cars from 2020 and Athens from 2025.

More cities are taking restrictive steps. Hamburg is building green cycling ways in 40 per cent of urban area; Copenhagen is aiming for 500 km of cycle track; Paris is restricting cars in the core areas; and even New York is pedestrianising main streets. The idea can only grow bigger and become irreversible in 25 years.

There are now quite a few car-free housing development schemes in Europe that prioritise pedestrians and public transport and do not allow parking. The idea of car-free living for eco-friendly urban life is becoming a marketing success especially in the UK and Germany. There is a radical shift in city planning to bring everyone closer and reduce travel distances and travel time.

Health worries will only push this agenda stronger. The US-based National Bureau of Economic Research has found a 13 per cent increase in obesity among those living in suburbs and dependant on cars. Boston University School of Public Health found that the risk of being obese in the US increased by 0.2-0.5 per cent for each one-point rise in the urban sprawl index. Singapore with stronger car restraints has a lower obesity rate than the western countries. To this is added the large number of deaths and illness from air pollution.

These worries are not only changing the choices of commute but also of cars. With emission standards becoming more stringent and enforcement more rigorous, small diesel cars will begin to disappear. Internal combustion engine will take a beating and electric mobility, especially for public transport, will take off. Even fuel cells can become a possibility for long highway driving. The industry will innovate more on features of cars for shared mobility. Even shared, autonomous self-driving car service can take people around. A lot will be possible without the need for more roads.

This change can be quicker in India, even though confronting middle class aspiration for dream cars looks difficult today. Most of our people have not moved to cars yet. Invest in the glamour of non-car commute and the value of public space. Our policymakers must believe in their own policies on walking, cycling, public transport and compact city design. These are consistent with the global policy trend that is adverse to promotion of auto-mobility with more roads, downgrading of public transport, and subsidy for cars. India, which is known for its historic car-free Matheran town, is witnessing shaping up of public spaces for people and sharper voices demanding non-car commute. The world will go past “peak car”. It is time to shorten the fuse to leapfrog to the big disruptive idea.

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