Rob Katz

Article Slams $3000 “People’s Car”

Streetcar2Ironically, as Nitin posted his piece on the $3000 1-lakh car, I came across this article, Just What Overcrowded, Polluted India Didn’t Need – The $3000 Car, in The Independent.

Well, we never said it wasn’t controversial. In fact, the whole thing gives me pause. On the one hand, who are we – especially when “we” means Western environmentalists – to tell others that they shouldn’t enjoy the same luxuries we do? In this case, environmentalists rightly point out that increasing the number of cars on the road in India will dramatically increase the amount of greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere. But the West’s own automotive revolution – started early last century – is a major culprit in the dramatic growth of global warming. Sounds like a case of hypocrisy.On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that India’s headed down an unsustainable path if it keeps this up. The road infrastructure can’t handle it – traffic in New Dehli is evidently among the worst in the world – and air quality is quickly tracking from bad to worse.

Obviously, good public transport is better than putting more cars on the road, in the long run. But the social status implications of 4 wheels vs. 2/3 wheels vs. public transport is huge. As the article mentions, buying a car is an aspirational purchase, and taking the bus may soon be seen as a low-class activity.

I’m not going to weigh in here – I’m very conflicted myself. But I will reflect on a little American history by way of commentary.

In the early 20th century, American cities were growing rapidly due to industrialization and specialization of labor. Many started moving from the countryside to the city to find work (sound familiar?) and there soon became a large demand for intra-city transport. In response, cities across the US developed electric or mechanical trolley systems (if you go to San Francisco, you can still take the streetcar from downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf).

The trolleys and streetcars were widely viewed as progressive, egalitarian forms of transport. Cars were too expensive; horses were too messy and unnecessary for short trips. Trolleys were also doomed.

You see, the car companies were threatened by trolleys. They took away customers — why would you need a car if you lived in the city or nearby, and could take a dependable trolley almost anywhere? (Answer: you wouldn’t.) So the auto companies, led by GM, started a campaign to buy trolley companies. One by one, the trolley companies were bought by car companies, who systematically dismantled their new acquisitions. Talk about a hostile takeover!

This isn’t a peer-reviewed history book, so I’m sure I’ve missed something in there, but that’s the basic gist. I think there’s something to learn from it – you can’t always trust the market to do what’s right and what’s optimal for the consumer, for the citizen. That’s why we have government. And in the case of the 1-lakh car, I just hope that the Indian government is putting some careful thought into the long-term implications of cars vs. buses vs. trains.