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Mobility: At what cost?

By Chella Rajan

Transport contributes nearly one-fourth of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. In India, there has been a 200-fold increase in vehicle population between 1951 and 2002, placing a heavy demand on petroleum. Emissions from passenger cars are expected to grow at 5% per annum, and from aviation at 4% per year. Are there solutions?

Improving access to the goods and activities that enhance human welfare -- jobs, businesses, schools, shops, leisure and so on -- is one of the principal tasks of development. Urban areas, which by definition are spatially concentrated areas of economic activity, see the greatest demands on access. As cities grow in size and function, a complex spatial economy begins to develop around land availability, and access becomes increasingly expensive. Quite often, the most valuable urban land is located closest to desirable centres of activity and those who cannot afford to live in these parts need motorised modes of transport to improve access. And where there is a limited supply of public forms of such transport (for example, buses, metros, light rail), people are forced to rely on private (two-wheelers, cars) and quasi-private modes (autorickshaws, taxis), which are generally more expensive. For those who cannot afford the latter, the situation becomes especially dire, as they spend much valuable time on bicycle or on foot, trying to reach their destinations.

Instead of characterising the problem of transport as one involving the equitable provision of access, many governments tend to assume that the fundamental need is for mobility and hence spend most of their efforts on building roads and other types of infrastructure to facilitate the movement of traffic. But wherever this policy has been adopted, access has worsened rather than improved, especially for those who are least able to afford private vehicles. In fact, even for car and two-wheeler users, having more roads simply means that the urban boundaries have grown and the distances they need to travel to get to their destinations have increased.

From an environmental standpoint, this strategy is disastrous. Transport contributes nearly one-fourth of the world's greenhouse gas emissions; it causes serious problems of urban air pollution and is thus a major hazard to public health. The entire infrastructure to support transport systems is tied to numerous other local and regional environmental problems, including sprawl, oil spills, depletion of freshwater resources and groundwater pollution. And transport is one of the leading causes of death and injury in many countries, due to traffic accidents.

India's transport policy over the past half-century is illustrative of this bias towards expanding infrastructure at the cost of equality of access. Between 1951 and 2002, there was a nearly nine-fold increase in road length and a nearly 200-fold increase in vehicle population. To be sure, much of this infrastructure was vital to connect cities and towns around the country. But a considerable degree of road expansion took place within urban areas, which is reflected in the explosive growth of two-wheelers, now comprising 70% of all vehicles.

Two-wheelers are the most affordable means of motorised private transport, but their proliferation simply means that alternative means of access such as public transport and planning to integrate jobs and housing are simply not working. In addition, the transport of goods by road is now increasingly (growing at about 12% per year) replacing the much cleaner option of rail, to the detriment of the environment.

The rising demand for access within cities has been met through ad hoc approaches that include excessive emphasis on increasing private access to mobility at the cost of mass transport. Thus, public transport in virtually every Indian city is overcrowded, poorly maintained, unsafe, and slow. Many state and municipal governments have instead promoted motorisation, often through hidden subsidies on roads, vehicles, and parking, even though this has led to congestion, urban sprawl and numerous environmental problems and has further limited mobility for the poor. The most environmentally friendly modes, namely pedestrians and bicycles, are given the least space and are subject to hazards from faster and heavier vehicles. Nearly 90,000 persons are killed and about 500,000 injured each year in road accidents, the overwhelming majority of whom are pedestrians and bicyclists.

India's greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector are relatively modest at present in comparison with China, Europe and the USA. The statistics are somewhat misleading, however, because they hide the fact that people's needs for access are not only poorly served but that poverty keeps a lid on the purchase of motorised vehicles. Even so, less than a third of India's petroleum demand is met by domestic production; the rest is imported, causing severe downward pressure on its current account. Currently, the biggest demand segment is freight, unlike developed countries where emissions from private passenger transport are more significant than emissions from freight. This is expected to reverse in the next half-century or so, though both modes will be competing for the dominant share of greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector (34% and 36% of transport emissions for freight and passenger cars, respectively; see Figure 1).

Emissions from passenger cars are expected to show the greatest growth in the coming decades (roughly 5% per year) and will dwarf emissions from two-wheelers, even though the latter will continue to capture the dominant market share of passenger vehicles. This is, of course, because two-wheelers are significantly more energy efficient than cars, but not necessarily more sustainable, given their poor safety record.

Figure 1. Expected growth in CO2 emissions in India from different transport modes (Source: IEA/SMP transportation model)

The rise in aviation-related emissions will be almost as impressive (at just over 4% per year). But while aviation's overall share will be relatively low (about 10% of CO2 emissions from transport by 2050), it is of particular concern for at least three reasons. First, it is highly energy-intensive, using more energy per person kilometre than a single-occupancy car. Second, its contribution to global warming is around three times greater than is indicated by carbon dioxide emissions alone. This is due to a number of factors including the warming effects of other greenhouse gases that aircraft release in the upper atmosphere. Third, its speed enables and encourages people to travel long distances and its use is increasing rapidly. These factors combined have led aviation to now represent by far the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. The associated problems have been combined with the fact that aviation has a privileged position in the economy and that, as with car travel, any year in which higher levels of traffic are recorded is interpreted as 'a good year' and encouragement drawn from any evidence indicating the prospect of more growth. Furthermore, aviation statistics are seldom treated with any seriousness in climate policy; indeed, there is no mention of aviation in the national communications of the government to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Change in the transport sector is complicated by the fact that it is a dynamic system having intricate links with land use, emissions and the economy. Transport systems require long lead times to change, often entail expensive investments in infrastructure and, even more importantly, significant changes in institutions and political culture. But, given these stipulations, approaches to reconcile the needs of transport services and those of sustainability are well known and involve two complementary routes. The first would be to make use of appropriate policies and modern technologies to encourage the flexible use of vehicle modes and technologies and thereby minimise the adverse impacts of transport. The second would be to apply planning strategies and induce lifestyle changes to improve access and reduce the need for motorised transport. 

The first approach would be to apply policies and make investments to encourage modal shifts and adopt cleaner and more efficient vehicles and technologies. Priority would be given to systems of mass transport over individual car use, for example through the use of economic tools like fuel and vehicle tax regimes. Where car use is likely to persist, such tools could be used to encourage less polluting vehicles, including hybrid vehicles and zero-emission vehicles, including non-motorised modes. Convenient and well-designed systems of high-speed rail could be introduced along busy regional corridors to reduce air travel, inter-city road travel and freight. Technological developments like intelligent transport systems could be used to introduce and guide road pricing; the development of national transport information systems for the various modes can help improve the planning of inter-modal transport.

Successful examples of public transport systems -- such as those in Hong Kong (China), Curitiba (Brazil), and Bogota (Colombia) (see box) -- may offer lessons for Indian cities. Where feasible, rail freight would be encouraged over road and air freight, and transport through sub-surface pipelines would replace vehicle transport.

Several technologies and strategies are available for reducing pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. The major approaches are alternative-fuelled vehicles, vehicle efficiency improvements, fuel quality and pollutant emissions improvement, transport demand reduction, and mode shift. Among the categories of policy that could effect these changes are pricing, RD&D, standards, incentives, restrictions, education, procurement, infrastructure development, and land-use planning. Some of these are available to state and local agencies. Many of these strategies intersect with other important social goals in making our urban centres vital, equitable and attractive places to live and work.

The second set of strategies would include measures such as integrated land use and transport planning, which involves lifecycle cost accounting of the environmental impact of alternative options. This could reveal opportunities for different urban regions to avoid the proliferation of new roads and motor vehicles while still meeting the transport service needs of everyone. The most cost-effective options, from the standpoint of sustainable development, may involve:

  • The development of dense urban growth corridors that are matched with corridors for mass transport development plans.
  • Infrastructure improvements to encourage multi-modalism within and between urban centres so that people would have easy connections among different modes (for example, walking, bicycling and riding trains).
  • Travel-demand management and demand-reduction strategies such as the subsidisation of mass transit use and car/van pooling.
  • The enhancement of communications infrastructure to reduce the need for vehicle trips.
  • The creation of safe pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths in combination with strict motor vehicle parking regulations in urban core regions, to make walking and cycling the preferred alternatives to driving.

The government has issued a National Urban Renewal Mission and a National Urban Transport Policy, both of which seem to be promising steps in the right direction. While mobility is still an explicit goal, there is also acknowledgement of the need to improve mass transit and integrate land-use planning with transportation. Unfortunately, the government reveals its bias towards capital-intensive and grand projects like metros rather than low-cost innovations like Bus Rapid Transit, even though a few demonstration BRT projects are included. And while there is a policy to promote non-motorised modes, there is also a requirement for the provision of parking spaces, which simply extends the 'automobilisation' of urban areas.

Furthermore, since some of these solutions are characterised by high investment costs and technical complexity, they need to be applied with care rather than as glitzy 'tech' fixes. The implementation of novel approaches can also be affected by the persistent adverse effects of past policies, perverse pricing, political recalcitrance and the absence of appropriate jurisdictional institutions. Overcoming all these barriers requires more than enlightened public policy at the highest levels, it also demands the creation of adequate financing facilities and a level playing field, and the development of transparent regulatory institutions and practices within the transport sector. Most of all, it needs a coherent planning framework and coordinated action at the municipal, state and national levels.

Some specific proposals to consider include:

  • Creating the institutional and jurisdictional basis for a regional, transit-oriented urban growth planning authority.
  • Establishing effective pricing mechanisms for transport systems to give the right price signals to users to internalise the external costs of transport use and also to generate adequate revenues for making investments in sustainable transportation.
  • Making public investments (and inducing private investments) where feasible, for appropriate non-motorised infrastructure and Bus Rapid Transit.
  • Establishing zoning regulations to encourage high-density urban growth and discourage car use where alternatives are available.
  • Instituting regulations and standards for clean vehicles, technologies and multi-modal choice.
  • Integrating transport policies with policies in other sectors such as telecommunications, to meet local and national sustainability goals.
  • Creating public education programmes on sustainable transport and land use.

Bus Rapid Transit in Curitiba, Bogota, and elsewhere

Curitiba is one of Brazil’s fastest growing cities, with over 2.1 million residents. In 1971, Jaimé Lerner, the then mayor, outlined an urban development philosophy that emphasised appropriate rather than high technology and urban innovation that was bottom-up rather than centralised, requiring citizens’ participation rather than master planning. Two key objectives that emerged from this approach were: a) to give priority to public transport and b) to encourage growth along prescribed axial corridors to prevent concentric density variation and thereby avoid congestion near the city centre.

For over two decades, Curitiba’s transport and land-use patterns have evolved incrementally. The city has shown how busways can deliver very high productivity, with 25,000 passengers an hour or more. The following elements were included:

  • Express, exclusive busways with inter-district and feeder bus routes complementing express bus lanes along structural axes.
  • Large bus terminals at the far ends of five express bus lanes for transfers. Medium-size terminals every 2 km.
  • Single (social) fare, including transfers.
  • Right-of-way for buses at intersections.
  • Special raised boarding-tube bus stops, passengers pay in advance, speed boarding, two extra-wide doors.
  • Double and triple-length articulated buses to increase capacity.
  • Private bus companies (contracted on number of kilometres, not number of passengers).
  • Land-use integration: zoning for high-density land use along structural axes, lower-density zoning away from access to public transport; information on land use widely available; historical building preservation is promoted by allowing potential transfer of rights to other areas; peer training on environment; government purchase of land for low-income housing 8 km away from city knowing that corridor would be developed there; bicycle paths and pedestrian areas.

Curitiba’s experience with the concept of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) was successfully replicated in Bogota and has now spread across the globe to cities in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. In India, there are plans to implement it in Ahmedabad, Delhi and Pune, and proposals are being studied in Bangalore and Chennai. While still not a silver bullet, its low costs (about 1-5% of conventional rail systems), high social and environmental benefits and potential synergies with a variety of environmental programmes involving recycling, parks and bicycle use have made Curitiba a touchstone for innovative transportation solutions in both developing and industrialised countries.

Growth of population and motor vehicles in metropolitan cities

Major Cites


Annual Growth Rate

Vehicle Population

Annual Growth Rate

 1991 2001 (1991-2001) 1991 2001 (1991-2001)




































Bangalore 4,086,5485,686,844 3.36577,000 1,680,278 11.28
Ahmedabad 3,297,655 4,519,278 3.20374,000 899,346 9.17
Pune 2,485,014 3,755,252 4.22280,000 658,313 8.92
Surat 1,517,076 2,811,466 6.36 197,000 575,373 11.31
Kanpur 2,111,284 2,690,486 2.45 169,000 384,955 8.58
Jaipur 1,514,425 2,324,319 4.38 266,000 693,336 10.05
Lucknow 1,642,134 2,266,933 3.28 216,000 555,773 9.91
Nagpur 1,661,409 2,122,965 2.48 167,000 458,961 10.64
Patna 1,098,572 1,707,429 4.51 180,000 312,801 5.68
Indore 1,104,065 1,639,044 4.03 214,000 550,388 9.91
Vadodara 1,115,265 1,492,398 2.96 162,000 506,014 12.06
Bhopal 1,063,662 1,454,830 3.18 130,000 333,482 9.88
Coimbatore 1,135,549 1,446,034 2.45 66,000 448,327 21.12
Ludhiana 1,012,062 1,395,053 3.26 202,000 645,686 12.32
Kochi 1,139,543 1,355,406 1.75 29,000 226,185 22.80
Visakhapatnam 1,051,918 1,329,472 2.37 142,000 208,779 3.93
Varanasi 1,026,467 1,211,749 1.67 112,000 338,715 11.70
Madurai 1,093,702 1,194,665 0.89 38,000 239,987 20.24

Source: Transportation in the 21st Century by Ranjan K Bose, The New Energy Economy, Edited by G M Pillai, World Institute of Sustainable Energy

Energy intensity by mode of transport

Mode of Transport

Occupancy (Persons/Vehicle)

Fuel Type

Petrol Diesel CNG Electricity

Passenger Modes: BTU/Passenger-km

"Scooter/motor cycle: 2-stroke






Scooter/motor cycle: 4-stroke






Auto rickshaw: 2-stroke




Auto rickshaw: 4-stroke












Urban bus 50  


Suburban electric rail 800    


Main line rail 900  




Freight Modes: BTU/Ton-km


Main line rail   




Source: NTPC Report, Planning Commission, May 1980; Pricing and Infrastructure Costing for Supply and Distribution of CNG and ULSD to the Transport Sector in Mumbai,TERl, 2002. BTU=British Thermal Units

(Chella Rajan is a Senior Fellow at the Tellus Institute, Boston, where he leads its programme on Global Politics and Institutions. He has several years of experience in energy and environmental analysis, with special emphasis on their institutional aspects)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2006