Transportation in Transition

by Amira Valliani and George Bogden:

On Delhi’s crowded streets, where trucks, buses, rick-shaws, mopeds, bicycles, and elephants vie for room in bumper-to-bumper traffic, even the most routine trip can be an adventure. When the slimmest opening appears, vehicles, animals, and people race to fill the void, only to be caught at a standstill just a few minutes later.

When traffic is moving, trucks careen down the pothole-filled highways, disregarding traffic signals. Lane indicators amount to mere decorations. A cacophony of horns, engines, and screeching tires adds to the polluted air.

The daily commute is a slow, dangerous process for the inhabitants of this sprawling city of over 16 million. Most brave the roads in Delhi’s 44,000 public buses, often traveling more than two hours to work. For shorter trips, residents board one of the city’s 76,000 rickshaws. Another 3.4 million are lucky enough to own motorcycles, which allow for a nerve-wracking but relatively faster commute, as drivers weave in and out of traffic with precision. Only the elite move around in one of the city’s 1.5 million personal cars.

No matter how one braves the journey through Delhi’s streets, it will not be a short trip. It can take over an hour to travel between neighboring sections of the city.

While residents wait in traffic, the city continues to develop at a breakneck speed. Its already large population will grow by 500,000 this year, and the city’s booming economy will bring millions of dollars of investment to the city.

Yet Delhi’s race to modernize is at risk of reaching its own standstill. The traffic that is a daily inconvenience for commuters constitutes a greater deterrent to Delhi’s development, as the city’s transportation woes drive investors away.

“Microsoft is not ready to come and work in these dirty lands,” explained Manoj Narula, director of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “They are living a great life in [the United States]. They are not going to leave that life just to expand anywhere. ” To attract a major corporation like Microsoft, a city must have the transportation infrastructure required to do business efficiently—a basic need which Delhi cannot fulfill today.

Two competing forces hope to address Delhi’s transit challenges. Government officials have launched a multi-billion dollar public transportation system to get cars off the road and ease overall congestion. An automaker called Tata Motors, meanwhile, has unveiled a “one-lakh” ($2150) automobile known as the Nano which aims to bring mobility to Delhi’s rising middle class. On one hand lies an urgent attempt to create a functional transportation system for the entire city; on the other hand, a new product allowing individual Delhi citizens a luxury enjoyed by many in the developed world. The competition between these two arrivals could determine whether investors flock to the city or are literally driven out.

The City’s Vision
Through the windows of the plush, eleventh floor offices of a real-estate investment company named Landmark Holdings, Delhi native and company chairman Gaurav Dalmia looked down on the chaotic streets of Connaught Place, the financial center of New Delhi. He recounted the story of a colleague who recently stopped by his office. “I asked him where his driver was parked, and he said, ‘Driver? Why would I worry about all of that? I just took the Metro to your office, and we can catch it now as well.’” The businessman smiled as he recalled his surprise. “The Metro is changing the face of Delhi,” he declared.

The Metro is Delhi’s most famous attempt to improve its transportation infrastructure. Organized by architect Dr. Elattuvalapil Sreedharan and costing a total of $4.25 billion, the Metro has received international attention for its sleek design and cutting-edge engineering.

In fact, the Metro has become a cause for national pride, and its creator a national hero. CNN-IBN News named Dr. Sreedharan “2007 Indian of the Year.” Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi, proclaimed to the Globalist that the Metro’s creation was “a very, very successful story.”

While it is not yet as extensive as systems in western cities, with only 40 miles of lines compared to the 229 miles making up the New York City Subway, it already ferries more than 700,000 people every day, helping to mitigate congestion on Delhi’s roadways. The system is still expanding and will accommodate three million commuters per day by 2011.

While the Metro has received international praise and attention, the eyes of the world have since turned to another transportation option: the Tata Nano.

One Lakh Car
When Ratan Tata first announced his company’s goal to build a car costing one lakh ($2,150), critics speculated that the vehicle would look something like two scooters harnessed together. But the ambitious businessman wowed skeptics and supporters alike when he introduced “the People’s Car” at the Delhi Auto Expo in January.

This product was the response to a commonplace phenomenon in Delhi, Tata explained. He shared his inspiration at the car’s debut: “Today’s story started some years ago when I observed families riding on two-wheelers, the father driving a scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife sitting behind him holding a baby. And I asked myself whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family.”

Though the idea that cars should be more accessible is far from original—think the Volkswagen Beetle—the scale of Tata’s project is unprecedented. While Volkswagen produced an impressive 21.5 million Beetles during the model’s 75-year production period, the Nano is aimed at a vaster and untapped market: India’s burgeoning middle class. Reaching even a fraction of the 200 to 300 million Indians in this demographic would be a bonanza for Tata.

The new car has taken India by storm. According to Salaj Gupta, a marketing executive working on the new car, citizens’ reactions to the Nano have been “tremendous.” It is easy to see why. From inside a private car, the city’s streets take on a different character. The hot, dust-filled air and the incessant smell of diesel fuel are blocked out, as peace, quiet, and air-conditioning begin to define the commute.

But traffic still moves slowly, and with more cars on the road, it will likely only get worse. Delhi already has more cars than India’s three next largest cities—Mumbai, Chennai, and Calcutta—combined. Moreover, according to Chief Minister Dikshit, 30,000 new cars flood the streets every month. The first wave of Nanos will markedly increase those numbers, enhancing the congestion already encumbering everything from residents’ daily commutes to progress on the city’s largest construction projects.

Acknowledging that the Nano’s release will challenge the city’s already insufficient infrastructure, Gupta wondered aloud about a classic dilemma: “Do we build more roads and infrastructure before we introduce cars? Or do cars come in, and then, in parallel, we build more roads and infrastructure?” His response was simple: “I don’t know.”

The Collision
While Tata describes his vision for the Nano as driven by social responsibility, a subtle irony looms behind his populist marketing pitch. Every Delhi commuter—and the city overall—will suffer from increased traffic when the Nanos hit the street.

Much depends on the government’s ability to enhance public transportation to the point that it becomes more appealing than private automobiles. The Metro is a major step forward, but it cannot overrule individual preferences. “There is still some inertia in using private cars,” Dalmia conceded. “It’s a cultural thing: people want to use cars because they are accepted as the superior form of transportation.”

The Metro’s challenges, however, are more tangible than just cultural preference. As of now, the system fails to link Delhi with most of its suburbs, and it is unlikely to do so for several years. Many of Delhi’s residents have family in these fast-developing suburbs. The independence offered by a private car makes visiting them easy, something the Metro simply cannot offer. Even within the city, Metro stops are primarily located in middle- and upper-middle-class areas. The poorest slums of the city, found near Delhi’s east and west boundaries, have been virtually ignored. Few stations, if any, are planned for these neighborhoods.

The Metro’s designers argue that routes must be justified by the economic realities of the city and that building new lines is only pragmatic on routes where traffic exceeds 20,000 people per hour, a measure that is only met by the city’s busiest sections. This attempt at pragmatism, however, ignores the primary role of the Metro: to create a transit system so good that people will not need to buy polluting, congesting automobiles. For the system to attain that status, it cannot leave large sections of the city unconnected.

But, as Dikshit told the Globalist, Delhi’s leaders hope to overcome the Metro’s limited reach by integrating it with other forms of transportation that can reach more of the city. “The Metro is not the only answer to Delhi’s travel requirements, she explained. “We are bringing in new buses, and I think in the next three or four years we will have 10,000 of them ready for public transport.” The bus system will offer different levels of luxury depending on the route and the ticket price. “Out of these new buses, 25 percent will be air-conditioned,” Dikshit said. “This would be specifically for people coming into the city to work, and perhaps going someplace in the evening.”

The municipality’s bus plans reflect an awareness of the commuter preferences and a conscious effort to make public transportation appeal to a broad range of citizens. While Tata Motors strives to make cars accessible to more than just the elite, the government is trying to make buses appeal to more than the poor.

The Delhi government, however, will soon be up against more than just Tata Motors. Tata may have pioneered its democratic design, but other firms are bound to join in, even if their successful car sales result in traffic that hinders greater economic growth. This is bad news for a city whose future relies on the large-scale investments of multi-national corporations. For these investors, an all-day traffic jam is more than just an inconvenience—it is a day’s revenue lost. And if Delhi cannot even provide transportation, a basic necessity, the city’s race toward what Dikshit has called “world-class” status will soon slow to a crawl.

In the end, while Tata should be lauded for his innovative product, the Nano may make it impossible for other investors to move around—and thus deter them from moving in at all. The government can only strive to lure citizens off the streets and on board public transportation, or Delhi’s growth, too, will enter the gridlock.

Amira Valliani is a junior Political Science major in Silliman College and the executive director of the Globalist. George Bogden is a sophomore Political Science major in Silliman College and an associate editor for the Globalist.