Thoughts about the Tata Nano, Andy Revkin's blog, and BRT
Posted January 11, 2008
The New York Times has been all over the story of the $2,500 car, soon to be sold in India. Besides the news story, Andy Revkin's blog, dotEarth, has generated a great conversation by asking whether there are alternative ways to increase mobility in our increasingly crowded, congested cities.
Made by Tata, India’s largest auto company, the “Nano” is only ten feet long, and five feet wide. At $2,500, it lacks most of what American drivers are used to: no air conditioning (in the standard model), no stereo (and no DVD player for the kids in back), and certainly no advanced pollution controls like we have on our cars here.
If you’ve ever been in Delhi or most other large Indian cities, you’ve experienced the incredible pollution, noise, congestion and chaos from the infusion of millions of cars in recent years. When I was there in 2005, I remember thinking that the only barrier to making the situation even worse was the price of the car—that a $10,000 car was beyond the price point of most Indians.
But, with the $2,500 price tag, the Tata Nano creates a huge new car market that has my friends at Delhi’s Centre for Science and the Environment up in arms, for good reason. (According to the Times, Tata expects to sell 250,000 of these Nanos next year. That’s roughly 20% of the entire Indian car market, by my calculation).
To answer Andy’s question, there are other ways to increase urban mobility, of course. In my own work in Latin America, I am struck by the massive investments in Bus Rapid Transit in many cities throughout the region.
BRT systems vary widely, but the basic premise of urban BRT systems is this: traditional bus routes are relatively inexpensive, but slow because they have to move through congested, urban traffic. Train systems offer fixed routes (great for inducing transit-oriented development and smart growth), but are incredibly expensive to build and operate, and they can take decades to build. (Hey, I’ve been waiting for the Second Avenue Subway since I was a kid). BRT systems thread the needle between the two concepts: train-like service, thanks to dedicated roadways and widely-spaced stations; yet cheaper and faster to build and operate, because they use buses on those dedicated roadways. If you want to dive in deep, there is a ton of great educational materials over at the BRT Policy Center.
Throughout Latin America, cities (including Bogota, Santiago, and most recently, Mexico City) are investing big-time. Indeed, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s Plan Verde includes a commitment to increase the number of BRT routes from one to ten over the next five years.
I hate to despair, so I won’t.
Instead, I hope that the Nano can be a wake-up call for environmentalists who are concerned about urban transportation. Are we heading towards a billion-car world, as Andy asks? If that's the future, I hope that we can figure out how to make all of those cars clean, efficient, and safe.
But what I really hope for is that the world’s environmentalists and governments can muster the energy and resources to create an alternate, more sustainable transportation path that increases mobility for the billions of city residents worldwide, while simultaneously reducing global warming pollution and improving public health, without requiring two cars in every garage around the globe.
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