Recently HSR Layout had a car-free day where all residents were forced to give up using their cars for close to one whole day, 15 hrs to be precise. Many loved it. With some, all hell broke loose. A colleague reported that many elderly folks stood around protesting that move. The article announcing that on citizenmatters was flooded with comments from residents dissing the move. On the ground though, for the most part the idea was well received and as with all first time implementations, there were hiccups that were noted to be addressed later on.
The interesting part for me is how we ended up requiring ideas like open streets and car free days. Even at the turn of the century car ownership wasn’t that common. You usually had a two-wheeler, multiple in fact for the number of adults in the family, and that was it. Anything more, you hired an auto or used buses. Spending lakhs on a mode of transportation wasn’t that common. Even with your two-wheelers you did not have the same level of attachment as you have now. Ads of those time pretty much reflect that. There was “Hamara Bajaj”, one scooter for the family, and not bikes with “Racing DNA unleashed”.
So what gave? One is definitely higher income. Even as incomes skyrocketed, the price of cars has remained competitively stable. Yes, there are increases, but the average Maruti 800 equivalent still costs around 2 to 3 Lakhs. More number of cars in the higher segments only reflects that more, a lot more, people are able to afford bigger cars. As many would argue, it is not just about transportation, it is a status symbol.
With status symbols comes another factor – a sense of entitlement. “Have car, will use it”. When I wrote the piece of the traffic on ORR and how it is going to worsen, a friend who drives to work everyday attacked BMTC buses saying that their stopping at flyover entrances was the sole reason for all the traffic mess in the city, and Single-Occupancy-Cars shouldn’t be blamed. After all, “I earn. I can buy. Hence, I should use it whenever and wherever!”.
The other factor that has happened in parallel is designing the city for cars. More and more malls are coming up who’s usage is built around cars. There are some like the Mantri one in Malleswaram which has integrated the Metro into it, but still the primary usage is by cars. Technically, this shouldn’t be a “problem” as such. Malls at least keep the traffic localised. You no longer have everyone descending on KG Road or MG Road to do all their shopping. These places are now pretty much desolate and you don’t really go there to shop anymore. But the radius is still 5-6 Kms and is not exactly walkable or bussable. Even if it is, how likely is it that people will use buses to get to malls? Note that cars are also a status symbol apart from the convenience they offer to the whole family. BMTC with its pathetic services hasn’t really helped either.
I found it ironic that the elderly were seen protesting against the open roads initiative. They, of all, have been worst affected by the recent changes. Whatever they earned and saved has been rendered almost negligible thanks to the inflation over the years, and forced to move outside the city many are now dependent on their children ferrying them around from place to place. Any independence is now within a Kilometre’s radius. Even there we have steadily rendered our roads unwalkable for anyone but the most adventurous. Worse is the state of those left behind while their children send them money earned in Dollars – lonely in their apartments (they were forced to sell their independent houses finding it difficult to maintain large houses, and also for security) and finding it difficult to travel longer distances. On-call drivers are definitely a boon to them, but even there the demand is more than the woeful supply.
The idea of Open streets and car free days is something that needs to become more common. There would need to be some tweaking and it will happen with more experience. We’ve lived decades without owning cars, so not having to use the one car over half a day shouldn’t render us paralysed. Going where one wants, when one wants would work only if the distance was smaller. With larger distances you needed more patience, to deal with buses and autos, and to walk some distances. The biggest challenge would be to unlearn these changes in lifestyle where people have had “cars becoming an extension” of themselves.
Eventually we should be able to get to a stage where cars are not privately owned, but shared resources like cabs or even rented for the duration of need. This is where services like Uber, Ola etc and more importantly Zoomcar would play a critical role. Use company or public transport 5 days a week, use a cycle or even a two-wheeler for short distances around the residence, and for longer distances book a ride or hire a self-driven car. I already see the changes happening where the twenty-somethings moving into the city don’t buy vehicles first up, preferring to use cabs booked from phone apps. The challenge will be to maintain that after they get married. Like in the US having a child is soon followed by a Minivan purchase. A lot more needs to be done on that front to not need cars even then. Generations have grown up without cars, it shouldn’t be too difficult, no?