How Private Cars Threaten Democracy And Citizenship?

A car-centric mobility approach, especially in an urban setup, is a threat to the basic tenets of democracy and citizenship rights. An excessive growth of private cars have endangered equitable distribution of road space to all and people-centric policies on mobility. The choices made between personal mobility and public transportation at all levels and times – at our households, media houses, at policy-making levels and even at courts – is very much a “political” choice than it appears to be.

private cars democracy

Cars have undeniably became one of the key artefacts, based on which our modern-day cities and urban spaces are created. There has been a veritable car boom in the country, particularly in metro cities like Delhi. For instance, statistics say that around 18.5 lakh cars were sold in India in 2014, which is more than two-and-a-half times the 7 lakh cars sold at the end of last century. The road networks occupy a great deal of city spaces; modern-day roads are far wider and easy flowing than before, tailored specifically to give free run to the motorcars, private vehicles in particular. Street spaces where people socialise and feel part of a united community are a thing of the past. Instead, our city lanes and pavements are filled with parked cars, and we find more and more parking spaces for those cars are carved out. An unbearable road congestion and traffic noise define our city living.

Also Read: Delhi’s Odd-Even Scheme: A Step in Right Direction

Apart from the infrastructural aspects, cars have even barged into the books of urban policy makers and the perception of media. As a whole urban society, we are inherently symptomatic of a mobility culture that favours the personal vehicles over every other modes of transport. The politics of privileging car users over a vast majority of other road users including those using public transport is a bitter reality. The choices made between personal mobility and public transportation at all levels and times – at our households, media houses, at policy-making levels and even at courts – is very much a “political” choice than it appears to be.

Such car-centric perceptions of mobility is hostile to the fundamental principles of democracy and citizenship. It overlooks the fact that a pedestrian or a person riding to work on a bicycle (both categories together account for about 42% of total commuters in Delhi) has the same rights over the road as the one driving a car. It also undermines the fact that a car driver has equal or more duties and responsibilities on the road. Bicyclists and pedestrians constitute more than a half of road fatalities in cities and more than 30% on highways. They are the most vulnerable road users who share scarce road space with motorised vehicles resulting in serious conflicts within traffic flows due to varied motor power, speed, and safety levels.

The Delhi Government’s statistics says that there are about 88,27,431 vehicles on Delhi road as of March 2015. Of these, 31.61% are private cars that transport a meagre 8% of total commuters, in spite of occupying a heavy share of road spaces. Equity on road as a territorial space is one of the basic corollary of citizenship rights. The National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) of 2006, in its vision statement, says that “people should occupy the centre stage” in mobility policies, with “equitable distribution of road space”. Which means, in strict sense, the equity demands that a bus carrying about 60 passengers should have several times the rights (on the road space) of a private car with a lone traveller. Rather than giving space for our buses, we often end up abusing bus drivers while driving cars for not giving us way or a free run.

The scrapping of Delhi’s BRTS

The BRTS (Bus Rapid Transit System) in Delhi tired to implicitly facilitate this equity in road space usage. Also known as High-capacity bus system (HCBS), it was designed not only to provide dedicated lanes for the city buses that carry about 40% of total commuters, but also to provide demarcated space for bicyclists and pedestrians, leaving two lanes for private cars and two/three-wheelers. However, as revealed in a study by the Hazards Centre, the BRT system, right from its inception in 2005, faced stiff opposition from the motorised private car lobby and sections of media. Consecutive governments, irrespective of which party is at power including the so called “aam aadmis”, were keen on scrapping the system described as an “inconvenience” to other road users.

BRTS Delhi

Those arguments against the BRTS that the car users and their concerns about “congestion” should be privileged ignores the primary objective of keeping people, rather than vehicles, as the main focus of public policy on urban mobility. Further, several studies conducted by agencies like CSE (Centre of Science and Environment), EMBARQ, Hazards Centre, DIMTS, and NDTV have consistently pointed out the positive impacts and widespread approval for the BRTS by all type of road users. An air monitoring study by the Hazards Centre revealed that the system did bring down the pollution levels. All such reports have been consistently ignored by the media and policy makers. There are, of course, problems with the BRTS, but as I pointed out earlier, an implicit political choice has been made to favour private cars rather than ironing out BRT system’s flaws.

Negative Externalities of Private Cars

For sure, private cars have their own advantages. They provide autonomy and safety to users. They save on travel time, thereby impacting their economic productivity.  However, excessive number of vehicles on road has led to road congestion. In such a scenario, road space becomes a scarce resource and therefore the positive aspects of owning a car, with all those private virtues, turns out to be a social evil. The adverse effects of cars on society are too many. Let me tell you how.

Firstly, as we all know, they top high in per-capita air pollution, noise pollution, and global warming. You may argue that commercial vehicles or thermal power plants emit far more than cars, but they serve for thousands of end users like transporting essential commodities or lighting up homes of millions. A majority of private cars run for the lone traveller or two-three people, and therefore the per-capita energy consumption and emissions are logically high.

Secondly, for every one hour a private car occupies the road, it spends about 10 hours squatting on a public space. Those space are a serious social liability, as they could have accommodated more public or non-motorised modes of transport, or housing for people (with thousands rendered homeless owing to high real estate costs), or those space could be used for a variety of social and economic activities. To prevent the loss of public spaces to cars, the Himachal Pradesh high court in May last year ruled that every car buyer in Shimla had to prove whether there is a parking space for the new car. It was reported that almost 80% of the cars are habitually parked in public areas.

Thirdly, private vehicles could have a strong bearing on the costs borne by others, for instance, the costs to society in terms of health expenditure and economic wastages. While a car user pays only for his fuel and maintenance expenses, for which he reaps the benefits. Traffic congestions result in loss of man-hours and increasing mental stress and road rage. The social costs are often far higher than private costs leading to what economists call as “free-rider problem”, where those causing complications do not bear the full cost of their deeds.

Moreover, cars engender deep class divides between the road users and there always exist an asymmetrical power relations on road. A classic example can be the sheer arrogance exhibited by car drivers, especially those driving large cars and SUVs along with their commanding driving position and vision, on cycle riders or rickshaw walas. From a car driver’s perspective, we always take the road for granted and dismiss cycle rickshaws or two-wheelers as a menace to “our” drives.

Also Read: The “SUV”ish Way Of Driving

What we have to realise is that owning a car and driving it can never qualify it itself to be a right in itself. It is merely a privilege, and we ought to respect the similar rights (over a road space) and privileges of other road users. The car-centric approach to urban mobility is actually quite unsustainable in terms of road space usage, fuel and pollution, and an array of social costs out of its adversities. Although private cars have become an integral part of individual lives and urban realities, we have to restrict their growth using suitable command and control (CAC) means and economic initiative, at least in metro cities to start with. The public transportation systems have to be simultaneously strengthened so as to make our urban living equitable and sustainable.

Dhiyanesh Ravichandran

Editorial consultant (Automotive and Technology), academic, and blogger based in India. He can be reached at

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