Development, Car Culture and the Environment

21 October 2013 05:23 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


There are not many countries that have been able to prevent the rise of a pervasive car culture following rapid economic growth. The motor car has become an important part of the affluent life style in both developed as well as developing countries. It is reported that there are already five million cars in the Chinese capital Beijing. This has contributed greatly to the rising environmental pollution there, graphically illustrated by the haze that blankets the city from time to time.

Indonesia, which was a net exporter of petroleum until recently, can no longer export it due to the rapidly increasing fleet of motor vehicles there. Developing countries that are on their way to a higher level of economic prosperity like India, Brazil and South Africa are moving in the same direction. Though there is an obvious solution to the problem, i.e. aggressive promotion of public transportation and decentralised development, there are not many good examples of such efforts. Sri Lanka, that had an impressive tradition of public transport in the decades following independence, has also given way to a pervasive car culture. The long lines of vehicles along the main roads leading to Colombo graphically illustrate this fact. Much of our investments these days go to building more and better roads, an invitation to people who can afford private vehicles to buy them. What is noteworthy here is that once people get used to private transport, they cannot be easily weaned away from it, even when efficient public transport is made available later. This has been the experience of many countries around the world.

" Another lesson that developing countries would have learned from the developed world is the need to promote decentralised development in order to avoid excessive urbanisation. Yet, Sri Lanka’s development continues to be focused on Colombo, and the Western Province "
Environmental degradation is not simply an ‘inconvenient truth’. It is very much a factor that undermines health and quality of life of an increasing proportion of the population. So arresting the trend towards the increasing use of private motor cars is not an option but a necessity if we were to avoid many health and social issues. The cost of addressing these issues, once they become pervasive and entrenched, would far exceed the investments needed to provide an adequate and attractive system of public transport. Besides, the damage done by environmental degradation and traffic accidents can hardly be reversed.

The car industry is a major sector in many economically advanced as well as several developing countries like India and Brazil. A major part of their export earnings comes from the car industry. It is true that more environmentally friendly cars are designed and produced today than several decades before. But, the truth is that increasing vehicles on the roads continue to mount a major environmental challenge with attendant adverse consequences. There is no discussion of any strategy with respect to the present dominance of private cars in the lives of relatively more affluent people, though a few countries aggressively promote environmentally friendly modes of transport such as the use of bicycles to reduce the negative impact of motor cars.

It is against the above background that national planning offers perhaps the only window of opportunity to map out how a country would want to face the above challenges, though we have long abandoned national planning in this country for all intents and purposes. It is important to recognise here that the issue at hand  is of great public interest and cannot be resolved in terms of a set of competing private interests, of both consumers and businesses. So, the discussion has to move beyond economics, to address issues that are too close to the well being and quality of life of a population. The change would perhaps need to come gradually but on a sustained and cumulative basis. There is no one little or big thing to do. It is a range of steps and interventions that are necessary to bring about changes in the way we look at things and how we want to reorder our living environment in order to facilitate much needed mobility but at the same time preserve the quality of life of the wider population, both the rich and the poor alike.

It is almost common sense that economic growth leading to mass private consumption often leads to the use of private motor cars by an increasing proportion of the population. Though it is obvious that the spread of the car culture inevitably leads to environmental pollution and traffic congestion, almost every country goes through this process of change almost mindlessly, until the situation becomes intolerable. No concerted effort is made to avoid such a development though it would be possible to map out and implement strategies to achieve such a goal. For instance, it is only now that the Chinese talk about addressing the environmental fall-out of the fast-spreading car culture. The same is perhaps true in almost all other countries, including our own.

The national and regional road network has been upgraded significantly over the last ten years. Yet, we cannot say the same about the railway network in Sri Lanka that has the potential to seamlessly connect different parts of the country together. The railways can be far more efficient and environmentally friendly than road transport. The trains can not only transport people in large numbers for various purposes but also carry large quantities of goods with ease. But, there has been no emphasis on the development of the railways, though some piecemeal measures have been taken in this direction in recent years. In other words, there has been no major thrust in railway development.

Another lesson that developing countries would have learned from the developed world is the need to promote decentralised development in order to avoid excessive urbanisation. Yet, Sri Lanka’s development continues to be focused on Colombo, and the Western Province. There is hardly any industrialisation in the provinces though import substitution industries in the 1960s were established in almost all parts of the country. Given the fact that the country has a devolved political system with a Provincial Council in each province, there is a real potential for decentralised development.

But, for this to happen, we need to empower PCs rather than restrict their functioning. Each Council can tap the development potential of the region and even compete with each other to attract capital and human resources. The North Western PC demonstrated this potential to some extent in the 1980s. Yet, our political culture does not seem to permit this kind of development. Equitable development across the country is a sure way to avoid excessive concentration of resources and people in the capital. This would also help arrest the deteriorating quality of the environment in urban centres.

Unfortunately, there is no national forum in this country to take up these and other critical development issues and come up with appropriate strategies to address them. Long term national planning has been pushed to the background in favour of more pragmatic short-term considerations.

  Comments - 1

  • G..M.Jayawardena Monday, 21 October 2013 05:42 PM

    Decentralization of the govt ministries is very much needed to avoid the congestion in the capital and it can be archived through the secretarial office rather than PC system which now seems a threat to the communal harmony in the island. Moreover since Sri Lanka is a small country and it dosent need a system that is available in a big country like India. The best option to avoid the environmental issues is to have the improved mass transportation system like in other developed countries.

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