We still have a chance to leapfrog over unsustainable models of car-centric development and invest in more equitable and environmentally friendly means of transport.
With India in its third phase of lockdown, and with the loosening of travel restrictions, the question now is: how will this pandemic impact people's movements and activities going forward?
Limited ‘essential travel’ has meant a drastic reduction in transport demand, both passenger and freight.
There are indications that passenger transport demand might not go back to pre-lockdown levels, as more companies seriously consider remote work possibilities.
And with social distancing becoming the new mantra, there are debates around the future of mobility, especially in urban areas which have been hotspots of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Already, discussions and articles in the public sphere are advocating a push for personal forms of motorised transport, especially cars.
So, should India become a car country? Do the potential benefits even stack up against the demonstrated costs of such a shift?
To begin answering these questions, we look to the mobility sector landscape of the country and see how it measures up against the externalities associated with high car ownership.
India walks and cycles to work.
India's mobility patterns are entirely different from that of many high-income countries with high rates of car ownership.
Typically, work trips constitute over 60 per cent of daily trips in our cites, and the 2011 census for the first time captured how Indians travel to work.
The data for non-agricultural workers provided some interesting insights. About 30 per cent of Indians don't travel to work as they live close to their workplace.
For the rest, walking is the predominant transport mode with about 23 per cent mode share, followed by bicycling at 13 per cent and buses at 11 per cent.
In comparison, mode shares of private transport stand at 13 per cent for two-wheelers and a mere 3 per cent for cars.
More than one-third of India thus uses active transport modes (walking and cycling) for getting to work, which have been widely acknowledged as some of the safest transport options during the pandemic.
The rise in shared mobility
When not walking and cycling, Indians are using public transportation, with 66 per cent of all households reporting expenditure on buses.
There are approximately 1.9 million buses in India, of which about 0.3 million are run as public transportation — a number that needs to grow significantly to provide adequate services.
India has been investing in its public transport infrastructure, with over 2 lakh crore rupees invested and another Rs 3 lakh crores of expenditure in the pipeline for metro rail and rapid rail projects.
Over the past two decades, more than 500 kilometres of metro rail networks have been laid across 10 cities.
Another 650 kilometres are under implementation, while over 1,000 km of metro rail and rapid rail transit networks are under various stages of planning.
In addition to public transportation, there has been a proliferation of private shared mobility services, including on-demand taxis and auto-rickshaws, bike rentals, car rentals, and private bus shuttles.
Providing a variety of transport options for fulfilling different types of travel requirements, private shared mobility services are increasingly popular in urban areas.
By 2030, It is estimated that 35 per cent of all vehicle kilometres driven through the country will be accounted for by shared mobility.
Two-wheelers are the predominant mode of private transport
Two-wheelers dominate motor vehicle ownership in the country.
In FY 2019, more than 21 million two-wheelers were sold in India, accounting for 81 per cent of all vehicles sold.
Two-wheeler ownership rates in major Indian cities range from 350 to 550 vehicles per 1,000 population.
In rural areas, it is estimated that 34 per cent of Indian households own a two-wheeler.
At the national level, there are six times as many two-wheelers as there are four-wheelers.
And with the rise of more affordable sharing and rental models in this widespread vehicle segment, access to two-wheelers among the population is expected to grow further.
Thus, beyond active and shared mobility options, a significant share of India already has access to private mobility to fulfill their travel requirements.
Cars are saturating city roads
This brings us to India’s low car ownership rate of about 22 cars per 1,000 population — a figure that is often quoted by proponents to advocate for more cars.
This advocacy has found traction during the COVID-19 crisis, with narratives floating in from the West about the need to shift back to cars for safety.
However, there are multiple problems with this narrative.
Car ownership rates are not low in the largest and fastest-growing cities in India, which have been the primary COVID-19 hotspots.
As per Delhi’s Economic Survey 2018-19, the number of four-wheelers in the city totalled 3.25 million, which is approximately 177 cars per 1,000 population.
With the highest vehicle density of almost 900 vehicles per 1000 population, Chandigarh has about 300 cars per 1,000 population.
And with their relatively high population densities and inadequate road infrastructure, Indian cities are already saturated with cars.
Growing negative externalities of transport
The negative externalities of growing private vehicle usage are well known.
A 2018 Niti Aayog and BCG report estimates that congestion costs in just four cities in India- Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata- add up to Rs 1.44 lakh crore annually.
This figure is only expected to grow as more vehicles add to congestion in other rapidly urbanising regions.
That is not all.
India houses 14 out of the world's 15 most polluted cities, with the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health estimating that 2.5 million Indians lose their lives prematurely due to air pollution every year.
Motor vehicles are one of the main sources of India's toxic air.
As per the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) study, motor vehicles account for almost 40 per cent of PM 2.5 emissions in Delhi NCR.
Further, India loses 3 per cent of its GDP due to road accidents with car and two-wheeler modes figuring prominently in the statistics.
With only 1 per cent of the global motor vehicle population, India accounts for 11 per cent of all people killed due to road accidents globally.
And finally, the transport sector contributes significantly to climate change — indisputably the biggest risk posed to human existence on earth.
While the sector contributes 11.5 per cent to India’s total CO2 emissions, this percentage goes up significantly in cities — the transport sector contribution to total GHG emissions ranges from 13.3 per cent in Kolkata to 56.86 per cent in Hyderabad.
A diverse and resilient transport ecosystem
The COVID-19 pandemic has a three-phase recovery approach — lockdown, recovery, and the new normal.
We should not take decisions during the recovery phase, the current phase, that are likely to worsen negative externalities in the new normal.
Therefore, promoting car ownership as a policy mechanism to counter the relatively minor risks of COVID-19 transmission on shared and public transport modes is a severe over-reaction, with long-term negative impacts.
A diverse transport ecosystem, comprising extensive active mobility, public transport and shared mobility options, is a resilient and sustainable alternative to the single occupancy car usage that dominates car-centric countries.
There are huge economic and environmental costs to society associated with high levels of car ownership, costs that high-income countries are now trying to recover by promoting public transport, discouraging car ownership and usage, and supporting more walkable cities.
In India, we still have a chance to leapfrog over unsustainable models of car-centric development and invest in more equitable and environmentally friendly transport pathways.
With the opportunity it presents to build back better, the COVID-19 crisis is the right moment for India to push for more active, shared and clean transportation systems.