Why is public transport not good enough to make private vehicle ownership unnecessary?

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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If the goal is to protect the environment from automobile pollution, improve road safety, and end disparities in society, then vehicle scrappage policy is not likely to deliver on these tall promises. Rather such a policy could be counter-productive if we look closely at the aforementioned goals. Such a policy is another example of promoting market-based solutions to benefit few industries at the plight of the people and the planet.

If governments are serious to deliver on the goals listed above, then the only way forward is to improve public transport to an extent that private ownership of motor vehicles, becomes unnecessary and cumbersome.

When the Covid pandemic had peaked in India during April-May 2021, we may remember how some people who had resources procured oxygen cylinders as well as oxygen concentrators. But had the health system been strong enough for every human being, then why would have people privately procured such potentially lifesaving equipment like oxygen concentrators? Likewise, if public transport is strong enough, then why will we own a private vehicle?

 Last week Indian government announced its National Automobile Scrappage Policy at an investor summit to ‘give a new identity to the auto sector and to the mobility of New India’.

The government hopes that such a policy will inject over INR 100 billion. Indian Prime Minister said in a series of tweets that his aim is to create a viable circular economy and bring values for all while being environmentally responsible.

He said that the goal for 21st century India is to be clean, congestion-free and convenient mobility is the need of the hour.

He also mentioned market-based solutions such as promoting electric vehicles. But he did not mention even once the plight of public transport due to which people are forced to buy private vehicles (often on loans) to meet their commuting needs.

Car-less commuting is the future!

Who can disagree with the above promises the government is making, but such promises can only be delivered if we strive towards improving public transport with equity and human rights in the centre. Electric vehicles or scrappage policy alone cannot be a magic bullet rather they can fuel the very crisis we are trying to mitigate.

Replacing motor vehicles with electric vehicles is not the solution to meet the abovementioned goals, but transforming public transport so that car-less commuting becomes possible and feasible for rich and poor alike, can perhaps inch us closer towards these goals.

After all, a circular economy does not mean that money of the 99% ‘have-nots’ gets siphoned into the hands of the 1% of the most elite and rich people in the country.

We must remember that it is the government’s responsibility to provide safe, convenient, affordable, accessible and humane ways of commuting for all its citizens. Public transport has to be socially just and ecologically sustainable. For example, public transport should be within reach for everyone – especially including those who are often left behind – such as persons with disabilities, senior citizens, children, all genders, rich and poor alike, homeless people, and every human being on the planet!

When governments fail on its duty then it hides behind the market forces and co-opts itself incorporate agenda, enticing citizens to own, borrow, rent and use private vehicles to commute. Forcing people to own their own motorized vehicle (two-wheeler, car, etc) is one of the most normalized forms of privatization where a government like ours has almost washed away its hands from being responsible for strengthening the public transport system.

We need to improve public transport to an extent that it becomes so good that no one needs a private vehicle anymore.

The building of big roads is seen as a development but constructing useable cycles and walking paths is not, for instance. If safe spaces to walk and cycle or accessible and convenient public transport existed then private vehicle markets would have become redundant.

Instead, we are misled to believe that safe, comfortable and convenient transport is a private motorised vehicle. Why is the development of infrastructure only catering to the needs of the rich who can afford a car?

If public transport was strong and there were safe spaces to walk and cycle then why will people spend their life’s earnings or take loans to buy private vehicles? Likewise, when government education and health are strong, people opt for public services. But when public institutions become weak then the private sector gets not only a foothold but a stronghold. Privatization has taken its toll – and the worst hit are the people most in need and seldom served.

Even though few own cars still cars dominate our roads: Why?

 According to Census 2011 data, people who own cars are not in majority but our road infrastructure (and road policy) is essentially geared to make car-owners life convenient. Only 2.7% use cars, 3% use taxi or rickshaw, 3.5% use train, 11.4% use buses, 12.7% use bike/ scooter, 13.1% cycle, 22.6% walk and 30% do not travel (other modes of transport were 0.9% in 2011). Why will any government keep car owners happy unless the car industry is influencing such decisions?

Hope we remember that oft-quoted phrase that the best city is not the city in which all own and use cars, but a city where even the richest uses public transport.

On an individual level, we have to dissect market-based solutions that are being aggressively bombarded on us in multitude of ways, to supposedly ‘make our lives easy’. But often these market-based solutions are making lives miserable, not just for us, but also for others by damaging our planet.

At the government level, we have to vote for those in power who not only strengthen public systems for universal healthcare, education, transport, nutrition and social security but also de-normalize and hold problematic industries to account for deceptive marketing tactics.

If public services are good and accessible to everyone, then private options will by default become useless.

Roads do not belong only to car users. All of us need to reclaim our space on the road and ensure everyone is able to commute safely and comfortably.

Bobby Ramakant – CNS

(Bobby Ramakant is a 2008 World Health Organization (WHO) WNTD Awardee and part of CNS editorial team. He resumed cycling in 2014 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, sold his car in India in 2015, and did not renew the driving license in 2018 when it expired. He calls for socially just and ecologically sustainable public transport.

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