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More Cars or More Transportation Alternatives: What Will the World Choose?

As Tata Motors, one of Asia's leading automakers, prepares to tap into India's middle-class market by releasing the "world's cheapest car" in 2008, other countries with a long history of car dependence are grappling with ways to limit the social, health, and environmental costs of motorized transport. One alternative is so-called bus rapid transit (BRT), which operates like rail transport but offers more flexibility in routes. The systems are gaining popularity in cities in the automobile-loving United States as well as in rapidly developing nations in Asia and Latin America.

Tata plans to sell its "affordable" four-door vehicle at a sticker price of $2,500, or half the cost of the cheapest new car available in India today. As disposable incomes rise nationwide, the vehicle may lead India's 1.1 billion people closer to Western patterns of car consumption--and bring similar environmental and traffic problems, according to critics. In 2004, India had 145.9 persons per passenger car, and the United States had 2.2 persons per car.

"Can you imagine if even half of the 1.1 billion Indians owned a car?" Mahesh Mehta, an environmental lawyer based in New Delhi, noted in a recent Washington Post article. "We should not be following the Western model of car ownership. I think this will be disastrous in India." As an alternative to more cars, Mehta supports better public transportation to improve the Indian quality of life.

The development of Tata's new car is "kind of unfortunate," says William Vincent, deputy director of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute, a group that supports bus rapid transit. The focus on private cars "deemphasizes the necessity of trying to provide public transportation options," he notes. BRT systems in Curitiba, Brazil, Bogota, Colombia, and Beijing, China, have all significantly reduced costs, commute time, and environmental damage for local residents and other users, according to experts.

BRT systems under construction in the United States, such as the Euclid Corridor in Cleveland, Ohio, and phase three of the Silver Line in Boston, Massachusetts, are good examples of communities that were once dependent on cars but are now focusing on high-quality public transportation, Vincent notes. Similarly, in New York's Hudson Valley, the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign is advocating a BRT system for the overly congested Tappan Zee corridor. "Smart transit service and transit-friendly development are the Hudson Valley's tickets to a more livable future," said Kate Slevin, the group's executive director.

In India, as Tata prepares to launch its new inexpensive car, authorities are looking for ways to manage the expected influx of vehicles on the road. According to Walter Hook, executive director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes environmentally sustainable and equitable transportation internationally, the advent of the $2,500 car has initiated "lively debate, ranging from banning that particular car to congestion pricing." He notes that 11 cities in India are currently developing BRT systems, and that one system has already begun operating.

While it is important to promote alternative transportation options such as large-scale public transit, smaller, short-term changes can make a big difference as well, observes Michael Renner, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute. "Authorities of course need to improve public transportation and put a premium on walkable, denser communities in their urban planning," Renner notes. "But both policymakers and automakers should also push to ensure that the cars that are on the road--as well as other motor vehicles like the three-wheelers ubiquitous in Asia--are made more efficient and less-polluting."

This story was written by Alana Herro for Eye on Earth (e2), a service of World Watch Magazine in partnership with the blue moon fund. e2 provides a unique perspective on current events, newly released studies, and important global trends.

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