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NEW DELHI—The motherly advice of ‘wear a helmet' is drowned out in India by the problems of millions and millions of motorcycles.
"The dangers of motorized two-wheeled vehicles extend far beyond riders getting into accidents," says Dr Madhav Badami, professor of Urban Planning at McGill. The dangers threaten not only individual lives, he explains, but also the livelihood of the city. "The devil is, urban transportation is fundamental to economic development."
India needs more than just helmets—it needs a transportation system that works. To get there, "public policy must deal with the impacts while minimizing the cost of doing so for the user."
Pedestrians and other vehicles suffer reckless drivers, pollution ruins urban air quality, and the cost of fuel burns a hole in the wallet. Yet the advantages on two wheels are "irresistible," says Badami. "That is why motorcycles make up 70 percent of vehicles on the road."
After completing his undergraduate and master's degrees in mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras, Badami developed engines for a large Indian car and truck manufacturer. He then turned to transportation policy and planning, with vehicle technology as the hub of his interdisciplinary research.
Badami's doctoral thesis explored the cloud of problems surrounding motorcycles, scooters, and similar vehicles in New Delhi. Looking beyond emissions, it accounted for technological, behavioural, and other factors driving the use of two-wheeled vehicles. This ‘multi-objective' approach defined the difficulties in simultaneously improving people's access to transport as well as their health and that of the environment.
Badami's one-year sabbatical from McGill has led him back to India, where he is coordinating a meeting of transportation experts. From December 17-19 at the IIT in New Delhi, the ‘Workshop on Transport, Health, Environment and Equity in Indian Cities' will foster discussion and partnerships among academics, researchers, decision makers, and key representatives of industry and non-governmental organizations. The event is jointly organized with IIT Delhi's Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme (TRIPP).
Bringing together a varied crowd of specialists is the optimal way to make progress on transport issues, says Badami. "If you don't consider all angles, you run the risk of making things worse for someone."
India's economy grows by an astonishing nine percent rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) each year. Increases in urban incomes have resulted in a rush for two-wheeled vehicles. Prices have dropped due to manufacturer competition to satisfy (and encourage) demand. Eight million motorcycles and one million cars hit the streets last year. Public transportation still serves the majority of urban commuters, though most poor people cannot afford even a bus ride.
Coupled with swelling populations in cities, this means managing the tangled transportation system is an uphill battle.
In a paper published last year, Badami and a colleague in India explained how motorcycles offer irresistible advantages that override safety concerns. Relative low cost, convenience in traffic, and the ability to carry cargo or a whole family of passengers are some (risky) attractions.
Two-wheelers can carry passengers farther distances on less gas, but their engines combust fuel inefficiently, spewing out a catalogue of toxic emissions. In a second paper published last August, Badami describes the technological evolution necessary to mitigate emissions and other problems.
Motorcycles may create more buzz, but buses remain the most widely-used mode of transport in India. Badami and Dr Murteza Haider, a former professor in Urban Planning at McGill, analyzed bus performance in four major cities (New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolcata, and Chennai) and four smaller cities (Ahmedabad, Kolhapur, Pune, Thane). Their study, published in December, found that "fares are increasing, and ridership is actually dropping while crowding like sardines is tighter than 10 years ago."
Data analysis and surveys revealed fuel efficiency fell 20 percent from 1991 to 2001 and weak service, route coverage, and reliability. Importantly, everyone surveyed remarked on the sexual harassment that female passengers endure daily. But hiking bus fares to recoup lost passengers and revenue may backfire.
"Bus fares already take 12 percent of average household income and considerably more from low-income families on the city outskirts," says Badami. This impacts their expenditure on health, shelter, and food disproportionaly.
Badami recently penned an op-ed supporting Bus Rapid Transit as a viable, equitable solution. If the financial and operational issues plaguing bus transit cannot be worked out, the poor will continue to lose out. Those who can afford to buy motorized two-wheeled vehicles will do so, and "it would be difficult to persuade them to switch back."
"The key is not just understanding why people make the choices they do, but why they didn't make the choices we think they should," says Badami.
"In the end, transport outcomes are the result of choices each of us makes on a daily basis."