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What Do Cheap Cars Mean for India's Cities?

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An Indian street scene. Photo by Satbir from Flickr.

Last week the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune ran a story on the new Tata Car priced at $2,500 coming out in India in 2008. Some time ago NextBillion covered the new car from the “Bottom of the Pyramid,” angle and the NYT and IHT did more of the same, framing the debate around its affordability; like Ford’s Model T, it’s a car designed for the masses. What’s conspicuously absent from the reporting is what cheap cars actually mean to India.

With poor air quality already a major problem in many Indian cities, the increase of cars will only make things worse. And because poor air quality is directly linked to respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer we can expect more people to fall ill as millions of new cars flood the roads.

Traffic is another concern. To cope with a greater number of cars on the road, India will have to start investing in infrastructure, highways, parking garages, etc., money that could be spent on other things like mass transit, hospitals, schools, you name it. And as more money is poured into traffic infrastructure more people will have greater incentive to buy a car, which in turn will drive demand for ever more highways. Where will these highways go? My guess is that people will have to be relocated to make room for the roads. That’s what happened in the United States, at least; neighborhoods were sacrificed for expressways.

These are the real costs of cheap cars, a price that is not reflected in the price tag. The question we should be asking ourselves is if these costs are really worth it. And if they aren’t, why not spend more money investing in good quality mass transport?

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  • Hiiiiiiiiii. Nice sites.The Automobile industry in India is rapidly growing with an annual production of over 2.6 million vehicles and vehicle volume is expected to rise greatly in the future.I went to visit my relatives there back in 2004 in Lucknow and it was so crowded there I freakin swear. More cars on narrow streets in Indian cities will create a traffic nightmare and will only cause the city to sprawl more.For india’s Cities Car companies get big subsidies at the manufacturing stage through cheap land deals, interest-free capital and other concessions. These subsidies help bring down the cost of production and allow the manufacturer to price the car cheap,” said Choudhury, who runs the centre’s Right to Clean Air campaign.
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  • http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/opinion/04friedman.html?hp

    A similar article by Thomas Friendman for the NYtimes, published the 4th of Novemeber.

  • Interesting Dario. When I was looking for a picture I came across another photo which I’m including here:
    Photo by achakladar

    The caption under the photo said the following:

    NEW DELHI: Starting Saturday, no cycle rickshaws will be allowed to ply on the main roads in Chandni Chowk. In a bid to ease the traffic mess in the area, cycle rickshaws, hand carts and animal driven vehicles have been banned on Chandni Chowk road, Esplanade Road (from Link Road to Chandni Chowk), Church Mission Road, Town Hall Road and HC Sen Marg.

    The rickshaws will now be replaced with a fleet of 15 environment-friendly CNG buses, which will run on two circular routes in the area at a frequency of two minutes.

    While ten buses will ply between Red Fort and Fatehpuri Masjid, five others will move between the metro station on H C Sen Marg, Fountain, Red Fort crossing, Chandni Chowk, Church Mission road to the railway station at SPM marg, and move back along the same route. They will charge a flat fare of Rs 5.

    Said an MCD official: “We will start banning entry of cycle rickshaws on Saturday. There are around 8,000 cycle rickshaws that are registered in the city zone and around 50,000 unlicensed ones. Out of this, 15,000 to 20,000 ply in Chandni Chowk and surrounding areas.”

    Had you heard about this?

  • Extremely interesting and timely question. Actually the Indian metropolis are not able to receive more cars. A 10 Km journey in the peak hour in Mumbai took me more than an hour a couple of weeks ago. The case of smaller cities is not that different. Given the existing challenges, there is some hope when the Indian Government earmarked money for city development, including transport. Money that the cities are using in mass transit systems, including Bus Rapid Transit. Probably the cities are not able to move at the same pace as it is needed, but progress is evident. Pune started the operation last year of busways (not full BRT) and is improving the operations. Delhi is complementing its world class (though expensive) Metro with high capacity bus lanes. Ahmedabad is completing the first BRT Plan and it looks very good. Another 9 cities are following suit, with funding and help from the Ministry of Urban Development. As an international organization catalyzing environmentally sound transport solutions we found fertile ground in India and we hope to continue contributing to help them move in the right direction, not necessarily the “american way” of the Ford T.