Lydia Powell and Akhilesh Sati, Observer Research Foundation
The rationing of private mobility by the government of Delhi supposedly to curb local pollution has invoked mixed responses. If we leave aside the issue of the link between the use of private transportation and local pollution to the television debates and focus instead on the issue of mobility we may see something that is missing in the public discourse. Given the large shares of national resources, time, and capital that are being invested in motorized transportation, it is surprising that not much effort is put into understanding the motivations and circumstances that stimulate mobility and the scale and nature of the benefits that are derived from mobility. There is almost no investment in the development of social indicators in the transport sector which would make a major contribution to improved understanding of transportation and to improved public decisions in the coming decade.
Ownership of Light Duty Vehicles in USA and India
Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US (http://cta.ornl.gov/).
Transportation or mobility is typically a means to an end in both passenger and freight aspects but often public policy tends to treat mobility as an end in itself or as a substitute for access. For example low per person consumption of transport in India compared to developed economies is framed as one of India’s key development problems (as it is in the case of consumption of other developmental goods such as energy). The obvious policy response has been to build roads, multilane highways, metropolitan and national rail networks, airports and ports to increase availability of motorised mobility. In addition public policy also promotes the ownership of private vehicles through explicit and implicit subsidies even though it is well known that motorized private transport thrives on externalization of its true costs such as energy price, pollution and congestion.
The assumption behind policies that promote investment in motorised mobility is that all this investment will increase per person availability of motorized mobility and consequently increase per person consumption of transport. The unstated hope is that this would necessarily lead to access and opportunity and lead to overall growth. Is this a valid assumption? Will the mere increase in per person consumption of transport increase opportunities accessed per unit time or per unit cost for everyone? Who is consuming mobility for access and who is not?
Given that people do not need mobility in itself, normally, but rather a level of accessibility which enhances the degree to which they are able to participate in spatially unconnected activities such as jobs, shopping and schooling, the rate of growth of personal motorized mobility in Delhi could suggest one of the following:
- a mismatch in demand and supply of access to opportunity such as a spatial disequilibrium in the job market along with the inadequacy of public transport options
- the growing desire for emulative and positional consumption.
Mobility as a Solution to Spatial Disequilibrium in the Labour Market
Mobility in urban areas in India is in general a solution to problems of spatial disequilibrium in the labour market, expressed by mal-distribution of labour in relation to employment opportunities. Like migration, external commuting is a means of restoring a spatial equilibrium between available employment and the resident workforce. Unlike migration, it is also a means of capitalizing upon private and community investment in areas that lack ‘development’. The satellite townships that have developed in the last two decades around Delhi are testimony to this proposition. External commuting from these satellite townships is heavily dependent upon the availability of these residual assets at relatively low prices to compensate for the burden of long daily work-trips in to key business districts of the city.
Although very little external commuting is in long-term equilibrium, it does not follow that external commuting is a transient phenomenon of only passing interest. It will continue to be an important means of adjustment to spatial anomalies in job opportunities, and its importance may well increase as economic changes accelerate and daily travel range increases. External commuting has eased the problems of employment dislocation by transferring the redeployment burden to the commuter, whose daily journey has linked the undeveloped areas in the periphery of Delhi and the more prosperous workplaces located in key business districts and transferred a substantial share of this prosperity back to the satellite townships which were until very recently agricultural or waste lands and sustained their residential role.
The development of satellite townships, a process of ‘suburbanisation’ is the result of the market taking charge in the absence of interventions on the part of the Government in the form of systematic spatial planning. The potential contribution of spatial planning to the reduction of motorised mobility and the consequent impacts on the environment has been substantiated by many empirical studies which have concluded that about one-third of the variation in per person transport energy consumption is attributable to land use characteristics.
Studies based on data from industrialized countries have established that land use characteristics explain up to 27% of the variation in travel distances per person although half of the variation in travel distance per person could be explained by socioeconomic factors. Features of compact land development on the urban fringe, such as high density, a high level of jobs-housing balance and compact physical pattern, have been shown to enhance people’s accessibility to facilities and services and these have also been found to reduce the overall need for travel and the distance and duration of motorized journeys. A study conducted using housing survey data in the Netherlands showed that the density of urban form has a significant impact on mobility (commuting distance and mode choice) and thus on CO2 emissions. It found that workers living in the highest density locations (more than 25 houses per hectare) tend to travel about 11.9 km less than workers in the least dense location. In more densely populated areas workers tend to change from car to other travel modes, notably public transport (metro and tram). Accordingly, the predicted CO2 emissions per passenger were lower in the highest density areas. When a worker migrated from lowest to highest urban density level, the CO2 emissions per passenger was reduced by 47%. An increase in net population density of 10 persons per hectare was found to reduce 0.764 minutes in commuting time.
A study which measured petroleum consumption and population densities in a range of large cities around the world found a clear negative relationship between the two: as densities rise, fuel consumption falls dramatically. The villains of petroleum consumption were identified as US cities which had consumption rates twice as high as those in Australian cities and four times as high as those in European cities. The cities with the highest densities were those with low car usage and high levels of provision of public transport. The obvious conclusion from this study is the need for stronger policies of urban containment and for investment in mass transport systems.
In the context of cities in developing countries, the form of land use is often believed to have a major influence on commuting patterns although empirical research is scarce. In Asian megacities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila there has been dramatic increase in urban sprawl on the city fringe which has led to longer commuting distances and greater traffic congestion in the central city area. Longer travel demand and greater car usage in Asian megacities is seen to have been caused by new forms of land development at the neighbourhood level, that is, the non-pedestrian/cyclist-friendly urban form which emerged after the 1990s.
Although the concept of compact urban cities has been very influential, it has generated considerable criticism on a mixture of ideological and technical grounds. Ideologically, reliance on public intervention is questioned by many studies. These studies essentially argue that the market will resolve the issue as it has in Australia and United States where commuting distances and times have tended to fall in recent years because of employment decentralization and hence increased suburb-to-suburb work trips, and where the major growth in travel arises from non-work trips. The key argument is that ‘polycentric cities’, through market pressure, are the most effective way of dealing with the transport energy consumption and pollution problem. It is feared that the advocacy of dispersal may become a self-fulfilling prophesy and contribute to the evolution of future urban forms that are increasingly inefficient and socially inequitable. There is also scepticism over the realistic prospects for massive investment in public transport.
For some years geographers have been disputing the nature of these human and job movements. Some argue that growth has been occurring as a result of continuing suburbanization which is sometimes discontinuous – where development is hindered by green belts, for example. Others argue that the process has been one of ‘counter-urbanization’. This view suggests that growth has been focused, not on the periphery of existing urban areas but in the least urban areas. Thus, households and companies have been consciously relocating to small towns in a distinct anti-urban movement. These issues are important but the concern here is simply whether these processes are continuing and, if so, what are the prospects that they can be reversed?
Personal Mobility as a product of Emulative and Positional Consumption
In the decade after the Second World War, the advantage of motorized transport user over the pedestrian in the industrialized world was his speed in operating in an environment primarily designed to the pace of the pedestrian. By the 1970s the relative advantage of the motorized transport user over the pedestrian shifted to his distance advantage in an environment designed for the automobile. In that environment the absolute advantage of motorized transport declined as activities spaced themselves in keeping with the dominant capabilities of motorized transport. However, the relative advantage of motorised transport over the pedestrian has remained. The anger over the rationing of the use of personal motorised mobility in Delhi from the car owning sections of the population arises from the compromise on this relative advantage and not from any constraint in access to opportunities or entertainment.
Inequality emphasized by consumption that does not necessarily meet a need but merely expresses a desire to be respected on the basis of the level and type of material consumption. In 1899, Thorstein Veblen said that life had become ‘above all a battle for respect and avoidance of invidious consumption’ and that ‘everyday life was but an unremitting demonstration of the ability to pay’. This is truer today than it was in Veblen’s time. Working class families in India now spend more than they can afford on a car that makes them look wealthier than they are, lest they are seen as losers by others, most of all by their own children. This according to Veblen ‘the necessity of emulative over-consumption spurring each other into traps of ever greater over consumption’. This trickles down the social order and transforms whole societies into massive over-consuming systems that erode the carrying capacity of the natural world. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ a term coined by Veblen, is also driven by the desire to acquire what the British economist Fred Hirsch called ‘positional goods’ which by definition, reduce in value if everyone has them. A bigger or imported private car is the new ‘positional good’ in India and in urban cities it is seen as obligatory for the irrational reason that everyone in a certain social class has atleast a less expensive version. The other ‘positional good’ that is relevant in this context is location of housing. In an unequal country such as India where social inequalities are stark, no one is really free to choose where they live. The rich look for exclusive locations just to ensure that they do not live in undesirable locations such as those near slums where the poor live or colonies where wage earners live. This often necessarily means moving out into satellite townships far away from the central business district. This is also true of companies which want their office location to signal ‘class’ or ‘exclusivity’. When offices move into suburban exclusive locations, low paid workers are pushed into using personal transportation merely to remain employed as public transport is often poor or non-existent.
The process of suburbanisation and the consequent mobility is counter-productive as far as energy and environment are concerned because cities such as Delhi, by definition arise to minimise transport costs for goods, people and ideas and evolution away from cities is sub-optimal. Locational patterns within cities are in fact a function of transportation technologies. In fact the urbanization of poverty has been found to be the result of better access to public transportation according to an empirical study of data from American cities such as New York and Washington. Studies have also established that contrary to theory that the housing market sorts the poor, it was low cost public transportation such as subway systems that sorts the poor by attracting them to certain locations that sustain low incomes. This is true even in Mumbai’s Dharavi, believed to be Asia’s largest ‘slum’ which is sandwiched between the city’s two main railway lines and surrounded by six stations making it a public transport hub for the poor. The irony in these observations is that public transport usage strongly predicts poverty and explains the connection between poverty and proximity (to the central city) to a large extent. The transition from ‘poor’ to ‘rich’ status occurs when the transition from ‘public transportation’ to ‘cars’ occurs. Generous housing subsidies for the poor in old American cities played a role in attracting the poor to the inner city. On the contrary, studies have found that in many European cities the poor live in suburbs because of high fuel taxes and generous subsidization of public transport which make American style suburbs are unattractive to European middle classes. These studies imply that public transportation is an important policy instrument which can influence locational decisions of the poor and that artificially created political boundaries can induce the poor to crowd into cities. These results cannot be directly applied to India because the lives of a large section of the poor in urban areas is integrated into the lives of the rich as well as the middle classes as their live-in maids, cooks, cleaners, gardeners and drivers. With no policy on housing or public transportation, the urban poor in India continue to rely on walking, by-cycling or public transportation where available.
The notion of increased mobility through greater car ownership also presents hidden problems. These stem from the often disregarded fact that a large proportion of the population are and will remain without personal motorized transport such as cars as they may not be able to afford to drive them or they may be house-maids who are the car-less members of car owning households. So a significant proportion of the population in Delhi and other cities in India are comparatively immobile; they are the ‘transport poor’, an under privileged section of a society living amidst the myth of complete mobility. This section is also made up of such groups as the old, the young and the disabled, who require their immobility minimized rather than a general policy of maximized mobility. It is of course a well-known fact that as car ownership increases and the numbers using public transport decrease, services are often cut back and fares raised to meet operating deficits. The transport poor must maintain this declining standard of service by their fares. They are of course the group least likely to break this vicious cycle. So the distinctions between the classes have become more blurred in the context of spatial mobility. The major reason for this is that car ownership is now a more socially extensive phenomenon. The ownership of a car, the consequent increase in spatial mobility is merely a reflection of increasing consumption standards. Many of the plans for our cities, in fact, attempt to maximize mobility and adapt a physical structure which is for the most part unsuited to the car. Of course society is becoming more mobile, that is the ability and freedom to move from place to place is increasing, but the emphasis on mobility and especially on the privately-owned means of travelling tends to lead to the neglect of other vital issues such as access to opportunities. The growth of car registrations in India is a warning that growth in demand for energy and resultant emissions will be extremely difficult to influence with behavioural change in the short term. Energy demand from urban transport in Delhi alone is expected to increase three-fold over the next decade and on a similar scale in other large cities in India.
Rationing of Personal Mobility is not a Compromise on Access
The development problematic has been about geographic inequalities in wealth and quality of life from the very beginning. While spatial economic inequalities are an economic reality, the question is whether Government intervention or market forces should be allowed to reshape geography so that inequalities are reduced and economic efficiency is maximized. The experience from old American cities which have attracted the poor into the central business districts and the experience of European cities which have pushed the poor into suburbs show that government interventions in the form of the provision of public transport, subsidized housing, low or high tax on gasoline (America and Europe) could potentially influence locational decisions but do not change the circumstances of the poor.
The rationing of personal mobility in Delhi is unlikely to have an impact on access to opportunities or entertainment (or even on pollution) as a number of alternative options to mobility are available. However the exercise in rationing is an experiment in the ability of the Delhi government to shape individual behaviour. As of now the resistance to shaping behaviour is coming from the rich who are dismissing the move as populist. This is not a departure from typical behaviour of the rich. The poor seem to like the idea that the government is not afraid to take on the rich but they appear to be indifferent to whether or not the number of cars on the road decrease in Delhi or whether it reduces pollution. They remain more concerned by mundane day to day concerns over employment, income and availability of vital resources such as water. The only ones that are enthusiastic about the move are the ecological warriors of Delhi who believe that they can and must change the world and prime time anchors of television channels who like arguments more than they like answers.
Views are those of the authors
Authors can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Courtesy: Energy News Monitor | Volume XII; Issue 44
Courtesy: Energy News Monitor | Volume XII; Issue 45