India – More highways or Better National & Public Transport?
This is an email I had sent to our Minister for Road Transport & Highways in January this year. Of course I am still optimistic (or delusional) enough to hope for a response or an opportunity to further discuss this topic. Either way, I hope they at least consider it for a moment.
I have two thoughts to share with regard to your ministry’s awe-inspiring INR 3.3 lakh crore highway development plan [23 highways, 4-5 years]. It might help to reconsider the scale of the projects.
Please consider these two historical events:
Scenario 1: In the late 1800’s, electric car prototypes existed [William Morrison and others]. But given limited research and push, fuel-powered cars won, leading to a century of polluting vehicles and climate damage.
Imagine the world today if a more long-term view was taken in the late 1800’s and electric vehicles were pursued and developed!
Scenario 2: In the 1950’s, a few leaders and businesses saw great potential for plastic in consumer goods. Almost instantly, entire industry sectors were created around plastic goods and packaging. Half a century later, our helpless dependence on plastic continues, and its resulting ecological disaster is becoming irreparable.
Imagine the world today if a more long-term view was taken in the 1950’s and plastic was to be used sparingly and responsibly!
Sir, we are now at a similar crossroads with regard to vehicles in India. And you have the power to choose one of two possible routes for us. Please let it be the one that remains relevant half a century later.
Here are two thoughts for your consideration:
1. As autonomous vehicles become prevalent in the next 1-2 decades, we will most likely shift from a car ownership to a Transportation as a Service (TaaS) model, taking the usage efficiency from the current ~10% to ~90%. With this, the total number of cars needed could reduce to 1/5th its current growing demand [Ref.: https://www.slideshare.net/Ideafarms/transportation-2050-the-future-of-personal-mobility ]
While cargo related road expansion plans could continue as planned, if we only add sufficient road infrastructure for passenger cars to factor a future TaaS model, our planned highways might not need to be as wide as planned, and the project cost need not be as high as it is.
2. India, compared to North America, has four times the US population living on an area that is 1/3rd that of the US landmass. Therefore, higher individual ownership of vehicles made more sense in the US given the distance between people and places.
The Indian scenario is quite opposite. Many people on a smaller land mass. This means, a world class national and state based public and private mass transportation would be a more logical option to pursue than individual car ownership. If we simply build wider highways and push car ownership from an auto industry that is largely dependent on a captive domestic market but struggles to compete globally, we would end up with (i) an inefficient auto industry, (ii) traffic-jammed cities and towns, and (iii) huge, inefficiently used automotive assets sitting idle at homes and offices. We might lose our global efficiency and edge due to challenges this inefficiency would present not necessarily now, but in the decades to come.
So, if we create more efficient public and private mass transportation infrastructure like Singapore today, we can save investments on the current highway projects by making them more future-efficient. And the saved funds could be diverted to boost relevant economy sectors that will give us a global edge in the coming decades, while creating more efficient lives in a cleaner and traffic-free India.
—end of email–