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Indian Cities Recognize that Solving the Climate Crisis Doesn’t Involve Promoting Automobiles

Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, and Mumbai see large new metro networks as true climate solution

Last week in the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about a couple of Americans he met in India who were driving a solar and electricity-powered car around India. They spend their days excitedly showing people there the technology’s potential, hoping to convince lawmakers and entrepreneurs to invest in more sustainable transport. One of those individuals said the following:

“India is full of climate innovators, so spread out across this huge country that many people don’t get to see that these solutions are working right now. We wanted to find a way to bring people together around existing solutions to inspire more action and more innovation. There’s no time left to just talk about the problem.”

Mr. Friedman lauds the pair for their work, but I’m not sure that what they’re doing makes all that much sense. After all, India is developing rapidly, but the vast majority of its inhabitants currently don’t drive cars. Should we be encouraging the use of cars – environmentally sensible or not – in the Subcontinent?

The answer is probably no. India is simply too dense, its urban cores already too crowded, to make cars a sensible mode of transportation. Even if future cars produce little or no emissions directly, their presence still leads to the sprawled-out, auto-dependent and energy-inefficient environment all too common in the United States. The crusade for better mass transit will remain an environmental one, even as automobiles are electrified. Transit encourages dense, walkable, and energy-efficient land use; cars simply don’t.

Mr. Friedman, however, pushes the Americans’ work, convinced of the importance of improving the efficiency of cars:

“After a year of watching adults engage in devastating recklessness in the financial markets and depressing fecklessness in the global climate talks, it’s refreshing to know that the world keeps minting idealistic young people who are not waiting for governments to act, but are starting their own projects and driving innovation.”

What Mr. Friedman doesn’t know – or at least what he refuses to recognize – is that cities and governments all over India are working to develop solutions to the climate crisis – but not through developing new cars. Instead of encouraging the dialogue on developing improvements to automobiles, as does Mr. Friedman, we should be focusing on developing new modes of mobility, based on mass transit. Indeed, Indian cities are building rapid transit networks that are not only energy efficient, but that also encourage the kind of dense land use that’s ultimately best for the environment.Kolkata Metro

In far eastern Indian, Kolkata is laying the foundations of a 15 km east-west line that will be completed by late 2014. The line will run from the Howrah station on the city’s west side, travel under the Hooghly River (the first train tunnel in India), through the central city, and east to Salt Lake. About two-thirds of the system, pictured on the right, will be underground, with the other third running on overhead tracks. The trains are expected to carry about 600,000 passengers daily by 2030. The metro being funded by the national government and the state of West Bengal.

Kolkata has had a north-south metro running since 1984, and it also has an at-grade circular railway. But the new system’s construction was inspired by the incredible success of the New Delhi metro, which opened in 2002. That system, which carries 800,000 people a day on a 46-mile long network, is up to international quality standards and its clean, well-run operations are a remarkable improvement over the packed and sometimes unsafe railways frequently found in India.

On the country’s west east coast, Chennai is developing a 45-km system also inspired by New Delhi. Its two corridors would travel from the center city to the airport, about half underground and half on elevated tracks, with 36 total stations. The project, whose first construction tender was released last week, will be completed by 2015.Bangalore Metro

Bangalore, west east of Chennai, is closer to the completion of its new 2-line system, which will run 33 km mostly elevated with the exception of the portion of the line downtown (map to the right). The project, called the Namma Metro, will be ready for customers in the middle of next year, and carry 1.6 million people daily by 2021.

Finally, Mumbai is developing its first true metro line, which will supplement the city’s suburban rail network. The entirely elevated project’s first phase will extend 63 km but the complete system, to be finished by 2021, will extend to 147 km in distance.

These projects, as well as the expansion of the Delhi Metro and the eventual construction of similar projects in Hyderabad, Pune, and Chandigarh portend well for the future of India. Seemingly unbeknownst to Mr. Friedman, Indian cities are developing transportation alternatives that avoid exasperating climate change while also contributing the to well-being of the population. Solar-powered cars aren’t the solution.

Image above: Kolkata East-West Corridor Plan, from Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation; Bangalore Metro Plan, from Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation

7 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Kyle

    I lived in New Delhi for ten weeks and I have to say that the Metro is great. Although it didn’t reach to the area I lived, I took an auto rickshaw or taxi for about five minutes to Parliament and hopped on there. That was definitely the easiest way to get around and by far the absolute cheapest. The trains were really nice as well. The stations were clean (not counting outside the stations) and all the trains cars were connected, which added a lot of extra room. The expansion plan their working on is quite substantial.

  • KSK

    Yes, the Delhi metro is a world-class system, and hopefully the new systems will be as high quality. However, I hope that new residential and office development begins to orient around these transit systems. The new IT parks and residential enclaves (both middle and upper class) do not have proper pedestrian connections to public spaces or transit stations. Part of this requires new pedestrian infrastructure on public roads, but also implementing parking maximums and some form based code to prevent large setbacks and enclaves.

  • Hi Yonah!

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful and wonderful response to Friedman’s article, and to our project! It’s great to hear from you, and as an organizer of the project that Friedman wrote about, I’m really glad that Yonni called out a major big gap in what Friedman wrote about our journey. While his article was incredible, I’d like to clarify that our trip was not just a five week circus, nor just in electric cars, nor just about youth, nor just about personal mobility, nor just about renewable energy innovation). Our main message throughout the journey was about the multitude of climate solutions and the very simple fact that there is, will be, and can be no single silver bullet to climate change or transportation.

    Yonah’s right, personal transport is not the big solution. We begin every discussion of transportation in our leadership trainings focused on public transportation and the need for a multimodal transportation system in every Indian city. I get pretty techy pretty fast on how we can do this, but it IS happening that governments and public-private partnerships are developing transportation networks that can not only provide better transport for those without cars but get people OUT of their cars and into comfortable, safe public transit. We’ve been working along with our partners to develop the multimodal transport networks in Bangalore and driving that through IT companies that can afford to pay for them if they will transport employees.

    While in each city we rode and documented the amazing public transportation systems that are so beautiful — the Mumbai train network that carries millions daily through the most chaotic and exquisite transport dance, the CNG autos and the metro in Delhi; the low floor airport buses in Bangalore. These ARE the solutions!

    When we called for a global auto revolution at the peak moment of the auto bailout discussions (right at the launch of our tour), we called for a commitment from every global auto maker to sustainable mobility. There is a HUGE market for buses here (electric buses, even!) and for effective transport networks, and IT-enabled payment systems… billions of dollars of green jobs!

    The metros that Yonah discusses are meeting the needs of millions (myself and Kartik, included) and are safer, cleaner, and brighter than almost any place in Delhi. I also travel on the buses (but don’t tell my parents or my interim families in Delhi) as they are known to be unsafe both due to drivers and groping gentlemen. Its no wonder, albeit incredibly unfortunate, that so many people want to shift their transport modes. A vicious cycle of air pollution and lack of road safety (both due in major part to increased traffic) make it unpleasant to cycle or ride motorcycles (or even buses/autorickshaws) so those who can afford it are shifting up. Plus, the car as a status
    symbol remains as big an issue here as in the US (Hummer phenomenon).

    We are trying to change that in big and small ways.

    As with so many of the solutions we were trying to highlight, many traditional ways of life in India are more sustainable than the greenest American — from traditional Rajasthani building design to mixed use urban developments (Dharavi, or many other informal developments still show this); from clay cups for chai (now plastic!) to vegetarianism as a cultural norm. A big focus in our work here is to profile the solutions that do and did exist and to bring dignity and pride back to them. Plastic cups are not a sign of progress and nor is a car.

    So, why did we drive in solar electric cars and call them solutions if we love metros and trains and traditional ways of getting around? We did partner with Vinay Jaju, who rode his bike from Kolkata to Delhi on cycle to visit coal mines in India and promote the global campaign “Why New Coal?” We also wanted to reach dozens of cities in a short period of time. And train journeys are beautiful (the next road tour may be by train of our own) but as almost everyone in India travels by train daily, our journey did not seem much different from our daily lives (travelling India by rail to go to universities) by doing that.

    We wanted a mode of transportation that would catch attention for this cause – create a story, and then get a message out there. As a big part of our campaign is to profile India’s climate solutions that should drive and inspire the world, the Reva – designed and built in Bangalore – is inspiring. The solar power, I’ll admit, was to demonstrate and show people solar cells when they often haven’t seen PV up close. We NEVER spoke about the solar cars as a global transport
    solution, we instead saw them as an example of Indian innovation — an opportunity for India to export high quality goods to places that do need them or can use them.

    This is a big lesson that nations like India need to see before
    Copenhagen – that Indian climate innovation will and can be exported to the green-hungry nations that are legally or morally bound to dramatically reduce their carbon emissions. If India and India’s entrepreneurs sees this, they will be much more likely to invest time and money into clean tech development HERE. That includes clean tech for public mobility, for sure. We wanted to inspire young people to start thinking about solutions — and sometimes it takes starting with a sexier solution to draw them in before we start talking about bigger things like reducing transmissions losses in electrical wires or capturing waste heat from power plants…

    In our press releases, press conferences, and presentations, we always emphasized that we were not saying that everyone should have a Reva — it doesn’t solve any traffic or climate change right now. But we are saying people should look at it — the world should look at the relevance of electric vehicles for where individual mobility IS needed. The postal department in Kerala (an Eastern state) uses Revas
    for all mail delivery. Anna University uses Revas on campus to
    transport elderly professors as internal combustion engines are banned inside the large campus.

    Kartik and I both did change our minds a lot that there even is a
    space for electric cars in the solutions spectrum (I honestly
    questioned even that before the tour). But as we transition to more dense and better designed cities (the biggest solution, Yonni’s right) we’ll still have people in oversized petrol or diesel cars that don’t need them. I guess I don’t see electric cars as a New Yorker’s solution (or a Delhiite’s or Mumbaiker’s solution). It’s a solution for New Haven’s periphery, for London boroughs. We wont be able to provide metros or buses even to these less dense areas, but we can connect them.

    Again, as for the solar, its not really relevant in market analysis,
    but Friedman loves solar, so he talked about the solar cars. I love green bulidings’ and plastic reduction, so that’s what I talk about when I talk about solutions. I hope you’ll take his article with a few grains of salt, and recognize that we agree!

    Thanks for talking about this Yonah. It’s great to see these cities taking action, and we hope to use them as models for all Indian Tier 1 and 2 cities planning for people rather than for cars.

    Hope to see you soon!!!

  • Thank you for this blog. I’m obsessed with rail transport. Next up: the Climate Solutions Rail Tour!! I would LOVE for you to be a contributor to the blog, What’s with the Climate? http://whatswiththeclimate.org if these are the topics you are interested in. Our rail system is the second largest in the world and the world’s largest employer and still we need to invest more in it to make sure that India never gets off the rail!

  • Town

    “BMRC had approved the revised completion date as July 2010. But the status of the work as at January 31 this year showed that the contractor had substantially defaulted in casting segments for the viaduct, as well as launching segments on MG Road.

    Only two spans have been completed against the target of 23 spans by the end of January 2009.”

    The Bangalore Metro may be setback. In India, delays in public infrastructure are a source of predictable frustration.

  • Harsha

    I would like to point out that Chennai is on India’s east coast, not West. And similarly, Bangalore is to Chennai’s west, not east.

    Yonah seems to have gotten a wee bit muddled. But great article, as always. Keep up the good work.

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