As recently as 40 years ago, streets in India provided an inclusive space for push-cart vendors, cyclists, pedestrians, the disabled and sundry animals to move around while buses, three and two-wheelers, cars and other automobiles negotiated their way against these claims. Such streets might have appeared chaotic and cacophonous but they nevertheless were hospitable for a diversity of social exchanges.
Such a welcoming environment is, however, a thing of the past on the many thoroughfares of Bengaluru, Mumbai or New Delhi. Street after street has been redesigned to optimise automotive travel and thereby reduce what transport planners call the “friction of distance”. A recent statistic put it at more than 250 million vehicles crawling on Indian streets. This compares with 360 million in China, 150 million in Indonesia and 106 million vehicles in Brazil.
But this shift in redefining streets is not predicated solely on growing numbers of vehicles. It is a product of actions on the part of social and political elites to promote “automobility”.
Automobility, according to John Urry and other scholars of the field, can be understood as a powerful system locked in through very many social and technological interlinkages to institutions and cultures.
Witness the United States. Historian Christopher Wells has persuasively argued that automotive dependence in the US is embodied in the infrastructures and built environment since the middle of the twentieth century, to the extent that it has essentially transformed the host itself into a Car Country.
Reshaping streets and mobility
My book, titled Installing Automobility: Emerging Politics of Streets and Mobilities in Indian cities, makes the argument that the spread of automobility is achieved through the reimagining of streets and the reshaping of mobility.
I suggest that automobility is being put in place in Indian streets through three simultaneous thrusts.
First, the choices political leaders and governments, transit corporations and informed citizens make with regards to the mobility solutions for intra-urban travel have furthered automotive travel while discouraging other modes such as public transit, walking and cycling.
This is the case not only from decision-makers overtly prioritising automotive travel due to their “windshield view” bias but also from good intentions to prioritise public transit and cycling designed to benefit society at large not explicitly addressing a particular social segment, such as the more vulnerable.
In the process, solutions usually end up benefiting elite segments instead of marginal groups such as women or the poor – the very people they hoped to help. This occurs because of a lack of appreciation for the specific needs that the poor or women may have and how these may differ from society’s needs at large. A good example of this is the reduced proportion of “ordinary” non-airconditioned buses available on streets in Bengaluru in comparison to airconditioned buses.
While decisionmakers sought to introduce air-conditioned buses with the intention of providing comfortable transit options to attract the “auto-mobile” public back to public transport, instead what one finds is fewer ordinary buses on many routes lead to overcrowding and harassment on buses for a large majority of women or poorer bus users. Faced with unsafe and overcrowded buses, it is not surprising that people choose to buy motorcycles or other vehicles if they can somehow afford it.
Second, transport infrastructures are proposed as solutions to address mobility problems. But beyond this, infrastructures play a major role in producing the landscape of our contemporary cities, we know from the examples of Robert Moses’ parkways and freeways in New York city.
As illustrated so eloquently through Robert Moses’ life and the exclusion of people of colour from privileged places on Long Island, infrastructures become the arena for political plays that further the interests of political elites. Here again, interests of social and political elites often predominate in determining the choice of infrastructures that are proposed to address traffic congestion, road improvement, and mass transit.
Infrastructure solutions, more often than not, either represent the short-term electoral or political interests or the interests of globally-mobile middle classes, while at the same time disregarding the struggles of wage-earners and the poor for safe and affordable mobility. A recent filmSocial Life of a Bus that I co-produced with the Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike (Bangalore Bus Commuter Forum) illustrates this.
Finally, the claims of automotive users to road space often articulated through social media, street designs or practices of driving marginalises the claims of the non-motorised road users such as pedestrians, livelihood bicycle users, or pushcart vendors to the same space. For instance, in the face of enormous traffic congestion, enforcement and police agencies have relied, almost exclusively, on social media – especially Twitter and Facebook – to reach out to automobile users to exchange information on traffic, to gather opinions and to gauge the popularity of efforts.
Such efforts not only privilege the rights of automobile users to road space it also provides a direct avenue for motor vehicle users to voice their concerns with traffic enforcers, political leaders, the media and other opinion shapers. The voices and concerns of pedestrians and other road users go largely unheard.
Automobile becomes default option
The combined effect of these three thrusts is forceful and sets up a dynamic that drives increasing numbers of people towards automotive use. By making it difficult for the pedestrian or the bus user to move around on city streets, choosing an automobile to travel becomes the default option.
As more and more people desert public transit or non-motorised options such as cycling because of the difficulties they encounter on the street, driving a personal vehicle becomes more and more essential. This, as we have seen in other parts of the world, is a troubling prospect because it spells the instance when automobile dependence is created and locked in place.
The advance and lock-in of automobility around the world is particularly worrisome, as we seek to transition towards a low-carbon resource paradigm. This has become especially urgent in the context of human-induced climate change with personal automobile use becoming a major factor in carbon emissions.
The solutions to lock-in are not easy to come by. As in all situations of lock-in, a piecemeal solution does not address the problem and often only feeds it. Cities in North America are examples of how difficult it is to extricate oneself from an entrenched automobility. This is because lock-in needs addressing through systemic solutions that combine infrastructure, technology with political will and grassroots mobilisation.
Whatever the systemic solutions, an explicit motivation underlying it needs to be addressing mobility injustice that lies at the heart of automobility. For example, it is insufficient to build cycling lanes without first deciding which groups (such as poor, women or others who do not have cars) would use the lanes and then accordingly design lanes in consultation with these constituencies to meet their mobility needs.
Such a targeted approach would not only enhance their popularity but it would gradually pave the way for freeing our streets and cities from the grip of automobility. Such efforts are particularly important now in the post-Covid world with renewed calls for personal motorisation and the stigmatisation of collective modes of transit as vectors of disease transmission.
Govind Gopakumar is the author of Installing Automobility: Emerging Politics of Streets and Mobility in Indian Cities, and is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Engineering in Society at the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.