We have moved! Please visit us at ANTHROECOLOGY.ORG. This website is for archival purposes only.


HomeGlobal Change | Sustainability

The tortoise and the hummer (and the nano!)

17. July 2009 by Erle 9 Comments


Today, the Tata Nano (Wikipedia entry), the first “people’s car” of the 21st century, rolled out of a dealership in Mumbai, hitting the streets at 56 miles per gallon (and 1300 lbs; its a 4 passenger vehicle!).  Compare this with the pinnacle of US auto ingenuity, the Hummer, a 6 passenger vehicle built for one, weighing in at 6600 lbs and 10 miles per gallon.


When the Nano was first announced, as a cheap car that “anyone” could afford, many Environmentalists saw this as the end of the world- the cat was out of the bag- now everyone would be driving cars and causing global warming!  And I’ll have to admit that my knee-jerk reaction was the same.  As an environmental science professor deeply concerned with global warming and its primary cause, the combustion of fossil fuels, this just seemed another way to accelerate the heating of our planet.


But then, I thought about it.  And now, I’m ready to celebrate the arrival of the Nano.  First of all, I love having a car (most of the time- except when parking it!)- so how could I reasonably begrudge someone else from having one?  I should be congratulating people for having the chance to own their first car!


And will stopping people from driving a tiny, inexpensive, and fuel-efficient car solve global warming?  I think not.  The problem here is not about preventing people with small amounts of capital from having the opportunity to burn fossil fuels.  It is about finding and enabling alternative energies and means to help everyone go about their business without burning carbon. And maybe by actually being in the same boat (or car actually!), we humans will be driven to work together better to solve global warming (pun intended).


Regardless, Indians are now driving Nanos and Americans are driving Hummers.  And down the line, I suspect the cars Americans drive are going to look a lot more like Nanos than the other way around.   Either way, when it comes time to make international deals to limit carbon emissions and solve global warming, we really are all in the same boat, whether it be a Nano or a Hummer.  And if such deals never come to pass, or if technology fails to find alternatives, at least us Americans will not be the only ones who got to enjoy burning petroleum before it was all burned away, and with it, the climate system as we have known it.


News story at: http://www.hindu.com/2009/07/18/stories/2009071855541800.htm


United States mod said:

The US love being big and brash, it's just the way we are. The one good thing about building cars for the masses is that limited bio fuels will be depleted sooner rather than later, and will no longer contribute to global warming. Then we'll all be driving electric cars.

Laurence Aurbach
United States Laurence Aurbach said:

The point is not to begrudge anybody anything. The point is, what transportation systems support the best quality of life for the most people? What development patterns are the most sustainable from the regional perspective?

Large U.S. cities are already struggling with the negative impacts of mass auto usage. The environmental impacts of sprawl on land and water. Millions of acres of street pavement and parking, adding cost to every private good and service. Higher infrastructure and service costs for municipalities, counties and states. Thousands of fatalities and millions of injuries. Waste of energy. An epidemic of obesity. Each person spending forty-seven hours stuck in traffic each year. Degradation of urban places in terms of comfort, aesthetics, land value and business income.

And remember, those impacts will be with us even if autos use the cleanest, most renewable fuels imaginable. Add conventional fuels to the mix and we get steadily increasing CO2 emissions and pollution that harms human health.

India is far more populous and densely settled than the U.S. What will be the impact of mass ownership of cars like the Nano? There will be a small improvement over existing pollution trends, because the Nano is so fuel efficient. The convenience factor will improve for some people in certain situation. But overall, the impact will not be a happy drive-in utopia. The impact will be disastrous for the cities and regions of India.

Researchers affiliated with the World Resources Institute have produced a series of articles and studies on transportation and automobiles in India. Here are a few quotes:

Not everyone can have a car if we still want a planet — unless we change

"Common wisdom is that unless Indians, Chinese, and everyone else get cars they won’t have the same opportunities of mobility we had as we developed. In fact those opportunities are already lost."

The Tata Nano Released at Last: Blessing or Curse?

"Cars like the Nano will also improve the quality of life for those able to afford it. (It is important to note that the privileged few who can afford the Nano still comprise a minority in India and the rest of the developing world.) But the Nano is not enough to solve mobility and urban development problems of cities in a sustainable way. Much more is needed. The problem is that more cars - no matter their size or propulsion - bring more congestion, accidents, sprawl, and, if they rely on fossil fuels, more local and global pollution. Cities should aspire to a sustainable future that is not necessarily dependent on cars (and the highways and parking spaces that come along with them).

Behind Bangalore’s Growth, A New Species Is Born: Transport Challenged People

"Presently, private automobiles - two wheelers, cars, taxis etc. – make up nearly 88% of the vehicles on Bangalore’s streets. Yet that accounts for just 39% of trips. Thus it can be concluded that Bangalore has high congestion not because it lacks roads– a claim that advocates of road construction routinely make - but because there are so many private vehicles moving so few people. ... When a poor household starts spending such a high amount of money on transportation, its overall quality of life severely deteriorates because it can no longer afford things that it could otherwise buy. And these are not trivial things; they can be basic health care and schooling. With rising costs of energy - Bangalore has the highest petrol prices in India - and stagnant income levels, these people have no way of escaping transportation induced problems. ... At stake here is the type of city that we want Bangalore to become. So far, rapid motorization has converted Bangalore from a garden city to a black city - nearly 800 people die on Bangalore’s roads every year. And approximately 40% of these fatalities involve pedestrians and cyclists. ... It’s time to start planning for people and not vehicles."

and see also:

A Global Turning Point

"Urbanization is occurring rapidly and car usage is skyrocketing in developing nations. At the same time, substandard transportation planning, construction and enforcement, plus widening income disparities, mean there are more pedestrians subjected to hazardous conditions. Road traffic injuries are already the second-highest cause of death worldwide for children and young adults ages 5 to 29. ... By 2020, the number of human years lost from road-crash death and disability will be greater than years lost from any of the communicable or infectious diseases. Losses from road crashes will be greater than all war-related injuries and casualties."

United States Erle said:

Thank you for your well-researched reply!
And though I celebrate the Nano, and feel that "the people" have spoken, I completely agree with you that a world of bikeways and public transportation is definitely a much better world even than a world of electric cars powered exclusively by solar energy.  

But for me, here is the problem.  People want cars, in part because with the way our societies are structured, many need them.

Restructuring society by command generally leads to terrible futures, even when done by benevolent dictatorships.

So we are stuck with only one option, making the alternatives to cars more desirable than cars.

Your thoughts?

Laurence Aurbach
United States Laurence Aurbach said:

Of course, cars have many beneficial roles in cities. For example, if you're disabled and can't walk, bike or use transit, cars are a godsend. Emergency vehicles need to respond in situations where seconds of travel time can be a matter of life or death. The "three pillars" definition of sustainability includes economic and sociopolitical sustainability, so all of these issues must be considered along with environmental ones.

Three Pillars:

Certainly it is true that cars are used for most trips in the U.S. That is partly the result of consumer choice, but it is also the result of top-down command structuring of our built environment. We live in a landscape where sprawl was explicitly promoted by all levels of government for a solid 70 years. From the Bureau of Public Roads in the 1920's to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (the largest public works project in American history), sprawl was promoted and subsidized while cities and towns were shortchanged.

Obviously, if we build a landscape that is oriented to cars, and hostile to pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders, people are going to prefer cars. Other democracies have very different levels and patterns of auto use in their cities.

We've had some progress towards a more balanced transportation system with the passage of ISTEA in 1991, but most state DOT's and regional planning organizations still are very often oriented towards more roads, bigger roads, moving more cars at faster speeds, and giving lip service to alternatives.

Consumer choice itself does not exist in a vaccuum. The auto industry for decades has spent more money on advertising than any other industry. Until recently their expenditures have been vast -- $24 billion in 2004, according to the Wall Street Journal. And they didn't spend all that money for laughs; they bought advertising because it's a powerful behavior-changing agent that works extremely well. After a lifetime of saturation in car advertising, the American public believes that cars define their identities. I know I'm susceptible!

What if there was $24 billion spent annually on advertising for walking, biking and transit? What if we actually had a vision and goals for our transportation policy in the U.S., instead of reflexively maintaining the status quo no matter how costly and harmful it is? What if we set performance standards and gave cities and regions the flexibility to reach those goals however they saw fit? Some advocates are working for just that:

T4America: Transportation for America
Democracies choose how their governments prioritize policies and allocate resources. The freedom of democracy comes with the responsibility to be informed and make good choices. There are costs and benefits to auto transportation, and we must decide the best balance between cars and alternatives. The evidence indicates that U.S. policy is severely and unjustifiably tilted towards cars.

Transportation Cost and Benefit Analysis

I'm no expert on transportation policy in India, and the issues there are different, but it appears the policy balance is similarly out of whack:

Footfalls: Obstacle Course to Livable Cities

Auto Transport Services
United States Auto Transport Services said:

Great post. 56 MPG is crazy. Is there any information for crash-safety that's documented?

I'll stick with my 24 MPG PT Cruiser if I'll live through a fender-bender.

Multivariate Testing
United States Multivariate Testing said:

As long as every one is driving the same size auto; things should be OK, but the safety of a large auto regardless of fuel economy must be considered.

United States taxi said:

How many Nano cars delivered in India, what are the opinions of the present users, is it advisable to purchase?

nial fuller
United States nial fuller said:

That thing would be crushed by the hummer. I wouldnt let my kid drive that tiny death trap.

India yachika verma said:

Cheers to the author for giving me some solid ideas

Comments are closed