Let Them Drive Cars

new internationalist
issue 195 - May 1989

Let them drive cars
Cars and buses are fast replacing rickshaws and pedicabs in the
Third World. Michael Replogle looks at the implications.

Ahmad lost his job, his savings and his home when police came and threw his becak into the sea. The becak (a three-wheeled cycle-rickshaw) is a common form of transport in towns all over Indonesia. But local officials in Jakarta banned the vehicles as out of date and inefficient. Besides, they argued, becaks were the main cause of the city's increasingly worrisome traffic congestion.

Ahmad's becak was his home and office; he drove it during the day and slept in it at night. Today he bribes police to look the other way and rents another becak. He earns less than he did before. And he still has to dodge insults, as he swoops in and out of Jakarta's traffic, chasing down fares.

Like millions of others in the developing world, Ahmad is being shunted aside by car-crazed politicians and planners who see autos as the only form of transport worthy of the name. The Third World's infatuation with the automobile is not without consequences. Imports of oil, gas, cars and trucks now consume up to half the export earnings of countries like Kenya and Thailand.

In most Third World nations, cars are playthings for the wealthy. In countries like Haiti, Pakistan, India and Indonesia only a tiny elite will ever own a car. Even in more industrialized countries like Brazil and Mexico, a scant six per cent of people own cars. Compare that to Europe where 30 per cent of people are car owners or the US where there is one car for every two people.

Asian nations like China and India depend overwhelmingly on human-powered vehicles. Together the two largest Third World countries have 600 million bicycles but less than one per cent of the world's automobiles. However, there are now signs that this is beginning to change. Having embraced free enterprise, the Chinese have also embraced the car. The country plans to invest $10 billion in the industry and wants to produce a million cars by the turn of the century.

China's fascination with the car has been fuelled by advice from Western experts. Most Chinese currently get around on bicycles - there are nearly 400 million of them in the country. Yet the World Bank recently issued a massive report on transport in China which did not even mention the word bicycle. As a result, Chinese planners like Min Fengkui now call for 'bicycle traffic to be strictly controlled with the ultimate intent of reducing it to an auxiliary means of short-range transportation'.

Min reflects the attitude of many Third World professionals when he writes, 'the traffic role of bicycles will gradually phase out when urban transport becomes moderntzed - (In the West, bicycles) have already been reduced to being tools of sports, recreation and tourism. Such examples should serve as our reference in the planning of our future urban development.'

Like his colleagues in Jakarta, Min sees non-motorized vehicles as relics on the road to modernity. His solution? 'Speed up road construction, improve public transport and traffic control and restrain the volume of bicycle traffic in the cities, so as to prevent a further worsening of urban traffic congestion.'

Decisions on transport policy are usually in the hands of technocrats - engineers and economists, often Western-educated, who are wealthy enough to own cars. They are backed by urban elites who profit from oil import deals, car dealerships or construction contracts. Their decisions about what kind of roads will be built, and where, are based on economic pressure or military security. Are there cash crops or raw materials to be shipped out of the country? Build a road or a railway to get them to the port. Guerrillas in the hills? Blast roads towards them to get the troops in and out quickly.

The majority of Third World people get around on foot. In African countries like Kenya, more than 90 per cent of rural trips are made on foot; less than three per cent by car or bus. Cars are owned almost exclusively by businessmen, bureaucrats and foreigners. More cyclists and pedestrians are affected by unsafe roads and more passengers by poor public transport than are concerned as drivers by traffic congestion or parking problems. Even cheap buses may be too expensive for a peasant who earns only a few hundred dollars a year - and in rural areas there is often no public transport available.

Transport choices do not arise out of the free interplay of market forces. The existing systems of political power strongly influence investments in roads, bridges, expressways and oil refineries. Former Philippines Senator Jose Diokno understood how transport investment limited the development of local economies in his country while fostering dependency on raw material exports. 'Who owns private cars in this country? The elite. . - All the expressways converge in Manila when we should have been building roads connecting the different barrios to the town and one barrio to another so that the flow of goods would not all go in one direction, which is towards an outgoing port, but would have been circulating internally.'

Aid agencies and development banks can have a real influence on transport policies. The World Bank, for example, spends $100 million on urban transport every year. And most of that is car-related. Between 1972 and 1985, the Bank spent more than half a billion dollars building, improving and maintaining roads in cities. Of the $2.1 billion spent in 1985 on transport, minuscule amounts were spent on non-motorized vehicles.

The long-term effect of World Bank programs has been to encourage transport systems which are both capital and energy intensive. In Pakistan, for instance, the World Bank is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a local automobile industry.

Very little research has been carried out on the transport used by the poor. According to Indian critic MM Hoda, 'Our research programmes do not have even a remote relationship with the problems of poor people and rural areas of India. We consider research on aeroplanes, aerospace and automobiles as the real science, whereas research on Indian modes of transport like bullock-carts, horse-carts and rickshaws is considered substandard and below dignity'.

Instead of favouring cheaper forms of non-motorized transport, the World Bank advocates what it calls 'transport system management' - which essentially means increasing the use of buses. It's a laudable approach, but not very realistic in financially-strapped Third World cities. The politically-powerful car-driving elite are not keen on restricting automobile use. Instead, transport management strategies have often ended up reducing the use of bicycles, rickshaws and other kinds of low-cost transport. People are forced to walk or to use already overcrowded public buses. In the World Bank's Urban Transport Policy Report the sole use of the word bicycle is in a statement noting that 'congestion is often exacerbated when the road network must cope with a mixture of motorized vehicles, other modes of transport (such as bicycles and pedal carts) and pedestrians.

Attacks on less expensive, more appropriate forms of transport continue. In 1987 the authorities in Dhaka, Bangladesh announced plans to ban pedicabs from the city, even though they employ more than 100,000 people. But getting rid of pedicabs, becaks and bicycles is like knocking down slums to solve the housing problem. Most people now recognize this to be foolish: slum clearance has been replaced by a 'site and services' approach which recognizes that 'adequate' housing can only be achieved by building on what already exists. Similar changes in thinking are needed in transport policy - there are simply not enough resources available in the world to provide everyone with an automobile.

Transport itself is a kind of ecological system. Like the environment it requires both diversity and balance and is at its healthiest when offering many different ways of moving goods and people across short and long distances. When all resources are directed into one area (like the automobile), diversity is reduced and so is economic efficiency. More people end up walking long distances, or waiting for buses that never come; others simply give up and decide to stay at home.

There are clear-cut economic benefits when transport is matched more directly to need. A large bakery in Bogota, Colombia, for example, previously used trucks alone to deliver baked goods to its 600 retail outlets. Today the bakery uses huge lorries to distribute to six sub-distribution centers. From there a fleet of small cargo-tricycles deliver the bread and buns to retail shops. By recognizing the benefits of diversity, the bakery cut distribution costs by half and increased the jobs.

Third World elites who yearn for the speed, privacy and comfort of the private automobile won't easily be persuaded to change. But change they must. And we in the West too will have to recognize that the earth can no longer afford the luxury of the private automobile.

As Ricardo Navarro of CESTA, the Salvadorean Center for Appropriate Technology notes: 'It should become more and more evident that the dream of an automotive society can never be a democratic dream. The disproportionate price of making the dream more democratic could cause a severe headache even for the growing middle class, when it wakes out of its motorized dreaming to face the bill'.

Michael Replogle is President of the Washington-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which promotes sustainable transport for developing countries through direct assistance, projects, research, and advocacy.

1 Min Fengkui, Bicycle Traffic in China, China City Planning Review. Vol 2, No 1, June 1986. p85-91.
2 Michael Replogle, Sustainable Transportation Strategies for Third World Development, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, 1988, P0 Box 56538, Washington, DC 20011.
3 M M Hoda, Methods for Improving the Cycle Rickshaw, Indian Appropriate Technology Development Association, 1987.
4 World Bank, Urban Transport Policy Study, Washington, DC. 1986.
5 Ricardo Navarro, Urs Heierli, Victor Beck, La Bicycleta y Los Triciclos, Swiss Center of Appropriate Technology (SKAT), St Gallen, Switzerland. 1985.
6 Ricardo Navarro, Urs Heierli, Victor Beck, Bicycles, Intelligent Transport in Latin America, Development, 1986:4, Society for International Development, Rome, Italy.

Worth Reading On. The Car

[image, unknown] There are lots of books on cars but few with a sustained critical approach. James Flick's ground-breaking The Car Culture (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1975) is the classic anti-car tome. Authoritative and solidly-researched, Flick's work is a basic text. For a more recent and more wide-ranging study, Michael Renner's Rethinking the Role of the Automobile (Worldwatch Paper 84, Washington, June 1988) is highly recommended. Renner's slim booklet is both accessible and convincing; it was a key background document in the preparation of this issue of NI. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in Washington (PD Box 56538, Washington, DC 20011) has several useful papers on transport policy and also publishes a convenient order list of books and pamphlets. In a different vein The Life of the Automobile (Urizen Books, New York, 1976) first published in 1929 is an immensely entertaining experimental novel by Russian expressionist writer Ilya Ehrenburg. The novel uses a cinematic style to lampoon the anti-human elements of both capitalist car makers and Lenin's USSR.

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page

Subscribe   Donate