Op-Ed. Horrendous costs of motorized transport in (Indian) cities

Henrik ValeurEvery once in a while an article pops in over the transom, as happened this morning,  that provides us with a good, independent  checklist of the woes and, if not the solutions, at least the directions in which solutions might usefully be sought to our transportation related tribulations.  And this carefully crafted piece by Danish architect Henrik Valeur is a good case in point. His independent out of the box perspective leads him to making comments links and pointing out relationships which take him well beyond the usual transportation purview.  And if his immediate source of comment in this article is the awful, the quite unnecesssary situation on the streets of India’s cities, the points he makes have universal application. Healthy stuff for planners and policy makers. Let’s have a look.

The horrendous costs of motorized transport in (Indian) cities

March 26, 2013

Shorter version published in The Global Urbanist
Full report available here

By Henrik Valeur, 2013

1. Introduction

It could, perhaps, be argued that it is the combined ability to both move and think that has enabled us, human beings, to achieve the kind of progress we have. Today, however, mobility and thinking often seem to oppose, or even exclude, one another. Especially in cities where current modes of transportation and traffic behaviour are not only threatening the health of the individual, but of communities and eco-systems too.

And the prospect of many more people moving to cities and cities growing much larger is, of course, only making this threat that much more imminent. Not least in so-called “developing” countries where the number of motor vehicles in cities is growing rapidly, often exponentially, apparently without any serious attempt to control it.

Mobility culture
In “developed” countries motorized transportation evolved gradually while drivers, planners, regulators and law enforcement adapted to new technologies and increased traffic. In “developing” countries, however, the transition to motorized transportation is abrupt and sweeping.

Furthermore, urban planners and managers in “developing” countries are rarely trained nor equipped to handle massive motorized traffic congestion. And while there may, or may not, be regulations in place to mitigate bad traffic behaviour and the worst effects of motorized transportation, in practice, these regulations are almost never effectively enforced.

“Modern” mobility
Ironically, while people in “developing” countries are aspiring to the same kind of “modern” mobility as people in “developed” countries have enjoyed for decades, people in “developed” countries are now beginning to adopt modes of mobility that people in “developing” countries consider outdated and backwards.

Thus, a fairly recent mobility “invention” in “developed” countries is the concept of ‘shared mobility space’, which has, of course, a long history in many “developing” countries. And in cities like London and New York cycle rickshaws (pedicabs) are becoming increasingly popular while in their homelands in Asia they are being replaced with auto rickshaws.

Mobility trends
In India there are now two hundred times as many motor vehicles (including two-wheelers) as there were fifty years ago with the numbers having increased from 0.7 million in 1961 to 142 million in 2011. And most of these vehicles seem to be driving on urban roads with about ¼ of all motor vehicles in India having been registered in only 20 cities. In Delhi alone, more than one thousand new motor vehicles have been registered every single day during the past decade.(1)

By 2030 three times as many motor vehicles are expected to drive on Indian roads(2) and about 250 million more people are expected to live in Indian cities.(3) The problems related to motorized transportation in Indian cities may thus increase manifold during the next couple of decades.

The problems are already manifold, but may be divided into those concerning our own health and those concerning the health of the environment. Both of which may put constraints on development opportunities.

2. Human health effects

The human health effects related to motorized transportation in cities range from instant death to shorter life expectancy, reduced fertility, cognitive decline, chronic suffering and poorer life quality.

The causes include accidents, air pollution, noise, stress and physical inactivity.

Traffic accidents may result in injuries, mutilations and fatalities.

These accidents are, however, very unevenly distributed in the world. Sweden, for instance, only had 2.9 traffic-related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants (in 2008) while the same number for India was 11.1 (in 2009). Yet, the Swedes had 29 times as many cars per inhabitant (522 out of 1,000) as the Indians (18 out of 1,000).(4)

Thus, relative to the number of cars and people, the chances of dying in a traffic accident in India are about 100 times higher than in Sweden.

Air pollution
The health effects of air pollution may take time to evolve but are then often irreversible and may not only reduce life expectancy but also make life very painful.

These effects include chronic respiratory diseases like asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, also known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. In addition, air pollution may contribute to or increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, including coronary heart disease, other forms of cancer and damage to the immune system, impaired foetal development and cognitive decline.(5)

The high concentration of hazardous gasses and particulate matter from diesel engine vehicles is of particular concern in Indian cities with the level of fine particulate matter exceeding national guidelines (60 ug/m3), which are already set 3 times above those recommended by the WHO, in 27 out of 32 Indian cities.(6)

Though diesel is often referred to as ‘the poor man’s fuel’, in Indian cities black and blue fumes of smoke are being emitted from all sorts of diesel engine vehicles, including busses, lorries and rickshaws, but also two-wheelers and even new diesel engine cars.

And it would, in any case, probably be more accurate to call it ‘the poor man’s misery’ as the people who suffer most from these fumes are those who make a living on or next to polluted urban roads, such as rickshaw drivers and street vendors; those who live in close proximity to these roads (may include rich people); and those who have to walk or cycle long distances on these roads (usually because other means of transportation are not available to them).

These people also suffer from the noise created by honking, motor engines and tires moving on asphalt, which may cause high blood pressure and heart diseases, changes in the immune system and sleep disturbance. It may also cause stress and stimulate aggression and anti-social behaviour. And even birth defects can be attributed to noise pollution.

The level of noise in Indian cities is very high and it would seem that honking is the main source of the pollution. But most of this honking also seems quite unnecessary, being merely a habit, the result of over-anxiety or a way to let out steam of annoyance and aggression.

With so much redundant honking there is a real possibility that people will stop paying attention all together. Maybe that is the reason why the sound of the horn seems to get ever louder and more pitched. Like screaming children each driver tries to make himself heard above the others.

Noise, congestion and inappropriate traffic behaviour may cause stress to commuters using private means of transportation and this may lead to accidents, agitation and aggression (“road rage”) in a self-reinforcing vicious cycle.

Meanwhile, users of public transportation may be exposed to stress provoking factors like delays, overcrowding, smells and bad behaviour, which may, again, lead to more inappropriate and undesirable behaviour.

Commuters who are daily, or frequently, exposed to stress provoking factors in traffic may develop chronic traffic-related stress, which is known to increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and heart stroke.

Both acute and chronic traffic-related stress can seriously damage the memory and reduce learning abilities.

Physical inactivity
By opting for motorized transportation we opt out of exercising our body. In fact, we hardly move our body at all while travelling. At the same time, motorized transportation may prevent others from moving their bodies too.

Motorized transportation thus becomes the single most important contributor to sedentary modern lifestyles.

Lack of physical activity affects the immune system, causes the body to decay and impairs children’s development. And children who grow up in cities often lack opportunities to play.

While physical activity may reduce anxiety and stress, physical inactivity may lead to cognitive impairment, depression and reduced self-esteem. It will also lead to obesity and while this was “once considered a high-income country problem, overweight and obesity are now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings”, according to the WHO, who estimates that the number of overweight children is now more than four times higher in “developing” countries than in “developed” countries.(7)

Obesity may result in mental, social and physical problems, including cardiovascular disease, sleep deprivation, cancer, degradation of joints, asthma and diabetes type 2.

Diabetes type 2 is a metabolic disorder, which may lead to heart disease, strokes, loss of eyesight, kidney failure and amputations. It is thought to be caused by a combination of genetics and modern lifestyles, especially the lack of physical exercise and unhealthy diets.

The slightly grotesque situation in India is that it is now home to both the largest number of hungry people and the largest number of people with diabetes.

3. Environmental harm

Motorized transportation may contribute to the degradation of urban environments, destruction of eco-systems and loss of biodiversity, resource depletion and climate change.

Degradation of urban environments
The construction of infrastructure for motorized transportation, including roads, railways and runways, may cause permanent damage to archaeological sites and historical relics, architectural monuments and landscape heritage. These infrastructures may also create physical barriers that disrupt the social tissue and limit the availability of de-stressing natural environments and fertile land in and around cities, while obstructing the natural metabolism and destroying traditional and sustainable ways of life.

In addition, running motor engines, including air conditioning and cooling systems, and asphalt attracting and absorbing sun heat contribute significantly to overheating in cities – the so-called ‘urban island effect’. This is especially a problem in many Indian cities where people are already suffering from extreme temperatures.

Furthermore, motorized transportation contributes significantly to the formation of smog, which concentrates in cities because of the high emissions of air pollutants and because buildings in cities slow wind speed and thereby reduce dilution and removal of pollutants.

The smog trapped in cities may reach harmful and even lethal concentrations.

Destruction of eco-systems and loss of biodiversity
But air pollution from cities may also affect surrounding areas, even several hundred kilometres away, because the pollutants travel with the wind and eventually falls on the earth as so-called acid rain.

This is a regional problem especially in areas located downwind from large cities where the effects may increase over the years as the soil’s natural capacity to absorb acids is gradually depleted.

Acid rain has a negative effect on eco-systems and destroys natural wildlife habitats, thus contributing to the reduction of biodiversity. But it may also erode human heritage sites and monuments, damage forests (“tree deaths”) and contaminate water reservoirs, thus making this water unfit for drinking, and even for irrigation, and the fish in lakes and rivers unfit for eating.

Resource depletion
Being one of the world’s oldest civilizations and, perhaps, the most vibrant, India is home to a large portion of humanity’s collective cultural heritage, much of which is now threatened by the proliferation of motorized transportation.

Furthermore, motorized transportation may deplete non-renewable energy resources while causing land and water shortage, not only in the areas directly affected by the construction of new infrastructures, but also the areas affected by acid rain and climate change, including rising sea levels, extreme weather events and desertification.

Climate change
The International Energy Agency estimates that transport already accounts for around ¼ of the world’s energy related CO2 emissions and that CO2 emissions from transport may increase more than 50% over the next 25 years.(8) And a large part of those emissions will come from urban transportation.

India is still a mainly rural country, with about 2/3 of the population living in rural areas, and transportation in India presently only contributes 10 % of the country’s total CO2 emissions, compared to 30% in the United States, where CO2 emissions from transportation is, in any case, ten times higher than in India.(9)

But cities are growing rapidly in India and so is motorized transportation.

4. Development constraints

Mobility enables human interaction and exchange of knowledge, innovations and technologies, which is of crucial importance for development, but motorized transportation in cities may severely impede development by increasing expenditures, restricting productivity, impairing cognitive development and depleting natural resources.

The costs of treating traffic-related health problems put a heavy burden on national budgets and thus restrict government’s capacity to promote development.

In its 2009 report on road safety in South-East Asia, the WHO set the costs of road traffic injuries and deaths in India alone at 11.5 billion USD (for the year 2000).(10)

Money that could, for instance, have been used to improve education.

Loss of productivity
Traffic congestion, accidents and traffic-related diseases cause loss of human skills and talent, work capacity and innovation.

When people are stuck in traffic jams on the roads or waiting for delayed flights, trains and busses, they are largely unproductive. And to account for possible delays people may allocate more (unproductive) time or they may end up late for meetings, classes and other appointments.

In addition to the waste of time comes the waste of live. According to the WHO, most of the people killed on the roads belong to the most productive segment of the population.(11)

Motorized transportation may also reduce productive agricultural land and urban street space, which many people in India depend on for their economic activities.

Furthermore, rushed and careless driving, fumes of blue and black smoke, endless traffic jams and relentless honking combine to create an extremely hostile environment in which few people want to live, let alone work, if they have a choice. Current modes of transportation and traffic behaviour in Indian cities may thus discourage foreigners from settling there while encouraging locals, especially the well educated, to move away.

In a global economy, brain drainage and the lack of foreign investment may have severely negative effects on development opportunities.

Reduced learning abilities
Various studies show that air pollution, noise, stress and physical inactivity have a significantly negative effect on cognitive development.

A recent study from Denmark, that was intended to show the importance of breakfast for children’s learning abilities, revealed that breakfast doesn’t make much difference. What really matters, the researchers found, is age, sex and how children reach school. If they transport themselves, by walking, running or bicycling, their ability to concentrate, and thereby to learn, is significantly higher, even several hours later, than if they are being transported to school.(12)

Environmental restrains
Motorized transportation contributes to the depletion of non-renewable resources, both directly and indirectly, and to decreasing availability of renewable resources, such as water, forests and fertile land, through both excessive consumption and degradation of these resources.

However, as a consequence of resource depletion and environmental degradation our economy may have to move in a new direction. Future development opportunities may therefore be in less resource demanding products and technologies.

This may be yet another reason to promote walking, cycling and other healthy means of transportation in Indian cities.


1. Numbers retrieved from: Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, Government of India, 2012. Road Transport Year Book 2010-11. http://morth.nic.in/showfile.asp?lid=838
2. The Times of India, January 29, 2011. India will have 450 million cars 20 years from now. http://www.timescrest.com/coverstory/india-will-have-450-million-cars-20-years-from-now-4645
3. Mckinsey Global Institute, 2010. India’s Urban Awakening. http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/mgi/research/urbanization/urban_awakening_in_india
4. Numbers retrieved from: Wikipedia, 2012. List of countries by traffic-related death rate. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate and Wikipedia, 2012. List of countries by vehicles per capita. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_vehicles_per_capita
5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2012. Effects of Air Pollutants – Health Effects. http://www.epa.gov/eogapti1/course422/ap7a.html
6. World Health Organization, 2012. Database: outdoor air pollution in cities. http://www.who.int/phe/health_topics/outdoorair/databases/en/
7. World Health Organization, Media centre, 2012. Obesity and overweight. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/ and Wikipedia, 2012. Physical exercise, Health effects. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_exercise#Health_effects
8. International Energy Agency, 2009. Transport, Energy and CO2: Moving toward Sustainability. http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/name,3838,en.html
9. Numbers retrieved from: International Energy Agency, 2012. CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/name,32870,en.html
10. World Health Organization, 2009. Regional Report on Status of Road Safety: the South-East Asia Region. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/searo/2009/9789290223559_eng.pdf
11. World Health Organization, 2009. Regional Report on Status of Road Safety: the South-East Asia Region. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/searo/2009/9789290223559_eng.pdf
12. Politiken, 23 November, 2012. ‘Bilbørn’ lærer mindre i skolen. http://politiken.dk/tjek/sundhedogmotion/motion/ECE1819013/bilboern-laerer-mindre-i-skolen/ (in Danish)

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About the author:

Henrik Valeur on bikeHenrik Valeur is an architect-urbanist. He has served as an organizer, moderator and speaker at numerous international seminars and conferences. In 2010 he gave the Le Corbusier Memorial Lecture in Chandigarh, in which he noted that “the problem with modernist architecture is not only that it tries to erase the past; it also obstructs the future!”  He has furthermore served as a juror on several international architecture competitions and has taught architecture and urbanism at various international universities. He frequently gives interviews and participates in public debates.He has lived and worked in Copenhagen, Barcelona, Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Chandigarh and Bangalore.  His work is inspired by the situationists (art), chaos theories (science) and daoism (philosophy).

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eb-abount the editor - 15mar13 - wider

One thought on “Op-Ed. Horrendous costs of motorized transport in (Indian) cities

  1. Pingback: The horrendous costs of motorized transportation in (Indian) cities | Alog

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