Road to a shared civic life

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on January 30, 2020 Published on January 30, 2020

Wheel out: Towns and cities are experimenting with no-car days and streets being reclaimed for walkers and hawkers   -  H VIBHU

Why the world would be a much better place if fewer people drove cars

Though I’m well into my fourth decade on this planet, I have not mastered a skill that is so commonplace that it’s totally unremarkable. I never learned to drive. While I’m sure I could have done so if I ever summoned the motivation, the fault for my driving ignorance is not totally mine. In my upbringing and in my adult life, cars have been totally unnecessary. I grew up in New York City in a household that did not own a car, surrounded by friends whose families did not own cars. I lived for a few years in London, another city where people get by just fine using public transportation and their two feet. Now, raising a child in Brooklyn, I know how to cram a stroller onto the subway and sling a toddler onto the bus, but I have never longed for the supposed ease and comfort of life behind the wheel.

The relative carless-ness of my existence is, in part, a marker of privilege. I have lived for the bulk of my life in fairly wealthy places with robust systems of public transportation and safe, pedestrian-friendly streets. But it has also allowed me to see the virtue of living in communities where cars are not essential and where driving is not an obvious, ubiquitous aspiration, even as car ownership and use around the world is skyrocketing.

Among the rising middle classes of the global south, in countries as disparate as China, Ethiopia and India, owning a car is a symbol of having “made it”, of having joined the ranks of the upwardly mobile. No doubt, cars offer their drivers and passengers a degree of freedom and convenience that other means of transport do not. But their wider social costs are significant, from pollution and congestion to the calamity that is the current global crisis in traffic deaths.

In a forthcoming piece in Foreign Affairs, Janette Sadik-Khan chronicles the terrible toll of car-related death around the world. In 2016, the most recent year for which there are World Health Organization statistics, 1.35 million people died in car crashes: That total amounts to 3,698 deaths per day. Fifty million people are hit and injured by vehicles every year. Economists estimate that traffic deaths shave off three per cent of global GDP. This crisis is particularly acute in developing countries. Poor countries may only have one per cent of the world’s automobiles, but they have 13 per cent of traffic deaths. More than 150,000 people a year die in the roads in India.

Sadik-Khan, a former New York City commissioner responsible for transportation, suggests that redesigning roads — making them narrower and more navigable for pedestrians, lowering speed limits, and so on — will help trim the death toll. There are other common sense measures that would limit the frequency and impact of traffic deaths, including the use of speed cameras and making airbags mandatory. But these practicalities tend to miss the broader point: The world would be a much better place if fewer people drove in the first place.

Cars may make the lives of certain individuals easier, but they make cities more unliveable. In my visits to family in India since the turn of the century, I have always been struck by the transformation of India’s big cities: The mushrooming of flyovers and highways, the relentless traffic, the burgeoning number of gleaming malls, and the increasingly cordoned-off lives of the middle- and upper-middle classes.

On the one hand, these changes reflect growing prosperity. But they also speak to an outmoded vision of cities. So many cities in the West were redesigned in the 20th-century more for cars than for people, with dense neighbourhoods bulldozed, pavements uprooted, highways plunged through public spaces, and systems of public transport grossly neglected. These decisions led to inefficient sprawl, a decrease in street life, growing social atomisation, and wasted space (thanks to parking lots, for instance). Urbanists in the West, especially in the US, regret how the fetish of the car transformed urban landscapes; towns and cities now experiment with periods of pedestrianisation, in which cars are banned from major thoroughfares and the streets are reclaimed for walkers and hawkers.

As cities expand in India and elsewhere in the world, they have the chance to better consider the implications of what happens when you optimise spaces for cars. It’s not enough to build flyovers and wider roads; greater investment is needed in good public transportation — including buses, metros and light rail — and in structures that make it easier for all people to walk — wider pavements, pedestrianised squares — and to cycle.

Beyond the deaths and maiming that they cause, cars are also guilty of separating people from one another. The street, the bus, and the train become the realm of some classes of people, the car of other classes. I ride the subway every day in New York, and it always reflects a cross-section of society. Cities should bring people together and provide spaces to which all people, no matter their social standing, feel an equal claim. The proliferation of cars — with the lifestyles they encourage — makes that goal of shared civic life all the more difficult to achieve.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction


Published on January 30, 2020
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