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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