Driving in India and the $2500 car

I have a lot of appreciation for Tom Friedman, but I also have mixed feelings on his opinions on India. I wish he were not so easily influenced by supposed experts. Case in point: his recent NYT op-ed on the $2500 car. Friedman quotes Ms. Sunita Narain as saying “charge high prices for parking, charge a proper road tax for driving, deploy free air-conditioned buses that reach every corner of the city, expand the existing beautiful Delhi subway system, and then let the market work.”

I have several issues with this:

1. What about cities like Bangalore, or Hyderabad, which do not have a mass transit rail system? And in others like Mumbai or Chennai, where they do have one, the trains are so overcrowded during rush hour that they cannot really carry any more people safely.

2. Free airconditioned buses? She’s joking, right? Most transport corporations do not have money to maintain existing buses. I would say, instead, that we should privatize public transport so you get more buses on the road. We should run “commuter specials” during rush hour with better seats and air conditioning to tempt people to switch from their two, three and four-wheeled transport alternatives.

And oh, by “privatize”, I do not mean “let the police really own it under different names”, or “the government decides what routes and timings your buses will run”. And while on this, bar anyone from owning more than 5 buses.

3. Let’s expand existing services to have more buses and trains (or double-decker buses and longer trains). When I moved to Chennai from Delhi years back, I took one look at the buses and promptly bought a “scooterette”. If you are a woman, you would much rather risk the traffic than the groping hands in the bus. Not to forget the pick-pockets and the crush of passengers that makes it impossible to stand, or get off at your stop. Waiting for the next bus or train is not an alternative – the next one is going to be just as bad, maybe worse.

4. Mass transit alternatives should be co-ordinated with existing infrastructure – I tried the new MRTS in Chennai one weekend a couple of years back. A caveat – I haven’t been to Chennai in a couple of years, so this may have changed. But what I saw at the MRTS was this – many of the train stations were in somewhat unsafe-looking, deserted areas. They were not close to the bus stations, so if you were trying to transfer to a bus, you would have to walk for 15 minutes, maybe more, certainly not convenient for an office commute. And switching between different train lines was also not easy.

5. I have a soft spot for the “share autos” in Chennai. They remind me of the old “Phat phati” or “Vikram soovar”. I think these are a great alternative for somewhat customized multi-person transport. Why don’t they have more of these, I wonder?

And then there are the regular autos. A lot of memories come to mind. Haggling with auto drivers on busy roads, trying to find at least one who does not quote an outrageous fare. Feeling helpless and cheated every time the tampered meter spits out a fare that has no logic or math involved. Trying to persuade someone to go the direction you want to go. Going to an auto stand and getting mobbed by drivers. Thinking three times before taking one to the suburbs, or at night or after dusk, or on lonely roads where people are shut off in their high-walled bungalows.

6. It’s not as if we really like driving on the roads in our scooterettes, motor bikes and cars. Let’s face it, the roads are lawless. Buses can speed across signals, autos change lanes and cut across everyone else, and now, other drivers do the same. There are stones on the road, open manholes, sand on the edges so you can skid your bike..

And of course, the metro water tankers of Chennai and Bangalore. They are not seen in numbers in recent years, but when they do come out in force, they don’t obey any laws of man. They speed across signals and generally don’t use their brakes, so if you are at a traffic signal, the light turns red and there’s a tanker behind you, DON’T STOP! My cousin learnt this lesson the hard way. He was eighteen, his first day on a new motorbike, and he stopped at a traffic light. The tanker behind him did not. My cousin is no more. We all brave daily death on the roads, especially if we travel on two-wheelers, without a helmet; we are just lucky to survive each day.

7. If people are risking their lives every day on the roads, it’s because there is no good alternative. Which brings me to the road tax issue – increasing the road tax will add to the pain and the cost, but if there is no good mass transit alternative, why penalize people for not making choices they do not have?

All of which, brings us to – do I like the idea of a $2500 car? Yes, I do. As an alternative to two-wheelers, autos and overcrowded buses and trains, it’s a great idea. Add in incentives for car-pooling, and I think it may actually reduce the congestion on our roads.

And it should also decrease the lawlessness – after all, policing car drivers is a lot easier than policing autos and buses.

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2 thoughts on “Driving in India and the $2500 car

  1. Seems a bit unfair to jump on Sunita Narain when she very clearly states that she is not fighting the small car per se, but only asking for many more bus lanes. Her suggestion to have a/c buses is pretty ludicrous, but also notice that she is advocating greater emphasis on mass transit only for the Delhi system. The solution she advocates is far more possible for Delhi than elsewhere because the subway has been well-received in Delhi nas has really taken off. Chennai and Bangalore have managed to sink in a lot of money into nothing.

    Paradoxically, Sunita Narain is the one who’s allowed the millions of cars to come on to the streets of Delhi at all, by pushing for CNG. Delhi can handle these cars: if the same number were in Chennai we could walk on the tops of cars to wherever we were going.

    You really think the bus system needs to be privatized with the proviso that people own a maximum of 5 buses? I find it hard to believe such a company would turn a significant enough profit for people to get into bus-running fulltime.

    Your point #7 pretty much sums it, I think. People are going to buy cars because it makes sense in the current scenario that the govt is reponsible for; however policy decisions from now on should be geared towards making mass transit more attractive,, not car ownership.

    Car-pooling reducing congestion on Indian roads? That’ll be the day.

  2. To clarify, my point is that in a privatized bus system, I would like to see owner-drivers rather than corporations owning hundreds of buses and with the clout to match.

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