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Car Ownership May Be Down in the U.S., But It’s Soaring Globally

The number of cars per person more than doubled in China in just four years. This BMW ad is designed for the booming Chinese market. Photo: Ads of China

Two weeks ago, transportation researcher Michael Sivak brought us the news that there are fewer cars per person in the U.S. now than there were a few years ago – and that the number isn’t expected to rise again.

But globally, the trend is in the opposite direction, and it’s alarming. The world is producing more cars than ever. A new report from the Worldwatch Institute shows that automobile production hit a new high in 2012 — and 2013 is expected to surpass that record. “According to London-based IHS Automotive, passenger-car production rose from 62.6 million in 2011 to 66.7 million in 2012, and it may reach 68.3 million in 2013,” write Worldwatch’s Michael Renner and Maaz Gardeziin. “When cars are combined with light trucks, total light vehicle production rose from 76.9 million in 2011 to 81.5 million in 2012 and is projected to total 83.3 million in 2013.”

The troubling new reality is that while the United States and other developed countries are beginning to lay off the gas, other countries are accelerating wildly. Though the U.S. still has by far the largest fleet of passenger cars, auto sales in China overtook the U.S. in 2011. In 2010, the number of cars in the world hit one billion.

Taken together, Brazil, Russia, India and China (the "BRICs") buy more cars that the United States. Image: The Economist

The number of cars per person in the U.S. has been declining since 2006. But in other countries, the trend is ever upward. According to World Bank data, there were 18 passenger cars per 1,000 Chinese in 2006 and 44 cars per 1,000 in 2010. The Arab world and Eastern Europe have seen tremendous growth in private car ownership over the same period – from 87 to 123 cars per thousand people in Jordan, 18 to 36 in Syria, 230 to 345 in Bulgaria, 351 to 451 in Poland. In the meantime, U.S. rates declined from 453 to 423 per thousand. France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom also saw declines.

In 2011, the OECD’s International Transport Forum forecast that the number of cars worldwide would reach 2.5 billion by 2050, with the growth expected to be almost entirely in the developing world. At an ITF meeting, a Chinese professor dismissed the idea of bicycles as an alternative means of transportation, despite the fact that China is famous for its bicycle rush hour. The professor said, apparently without irony, that bicycle use in Beijing is declining “due to poor air quality and the danger from car traffic.”

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Update From Delhi: Separated Bike Lanes Far From Guaranteed

Delhi_BRT_Corridor.jpgDelhi currently has separated cycle tracks along its BRT corridors. Image: BRT_Delhi/Flickr

On Monday, we reported on Delhi's decision to install bike lanes on all its major roads -- an intriguing piece of news from a developing world metropolis where private motoring appears poised to potentially overwhelm the city's streets.

We noted that it seemed like an open question whether those bike lanes would be physically separated or not. Since then, we've heard back from the Delhi Cycling Club, the local advocacy organization that led the push for bike lanes. It turns out they have the same questions we do.

According to the club's Rajendra Verma, decisions about physical separation will hinge on both the advice of consultants hired by the Delhi government and "how much the pressure groups like us are able to push/fight for in order to ensure that bike lanes are developed mostly [as] physically segregated in the city."

Anything less than separated lanes will probably wilt under the pressure of Delhi's famously lawless streets. The Times of India reports that the city's bike lanes "are encroached by unauthorized parking, two-wheelers and autos avoiding jams or hawkers and squatters."

Separated lanes or not, Verma called Delhi's commitment to cycling a "major policy decision." Though it does sound like the Delhi Cycling Club has a lot of advocacy work ahead to make these bike lanes all they should be.

You can read the letter from Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit after the jump...

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Delhi Turns to Bike Lanes to Tame World’s Most Dangerous Traffic

delhi_street.jpgSpace is at a premium on Delhi's streets. Photo: DaveBleasdale/Flickr

Delhi, home to over 12 million people and the seat of India's national government, is widely considered to have the most dangerous traffic in the world. As the Guardian wrote recently, traffic safety in Delhi basically consists of "good horns, good brakes, good luck." Nationally, crashes in India killed more than 130,000 people -- 85 percent of whom were pedestrians and cyclists -- in 2007 alone.

As of last week, however, one piece of Delhi's solution seems clear: bike lanes on all major roads. 

One month after a local bicycle advocacy group, the Delhi Cycling Club, sent a list of demands to the Delhi government, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit announced that all major streets will be retrofitted with bike lanes. "In a city like Delhi, cycling would be the most effective mode of transport to combat pollution and congestion on the roads," wrote Dikshit.

From press accounts, it's not exactly clear whether the new network would consist entirely of physically separated lanes, which currently exist along the city's bus rapid transit corridors.

A network of physically separated lanes would be especially useful in a city where traffic laws go largely unenforced. There are 110 million traffic violations in Delhi every day, according to the Guardian.

Delhi's investment in a cycling future comes not a moment too soon. Last year's introduction of the Tata Nano, a car priced at $2,000, has threatened to flood the city's already full streets with even more automobiles and even worse gridlock.

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“Do as We Say, Not as We Do” = No Model for Sustainability

jams.jpgTraffic in Delhi and Atlanta. Notice which scene also includes bikes. Photos: Ri Co Fo To and silvrayn via Flickr
Environmentally-conscious citizens of India aren't alone in their concern about the rollout of the Tata Nano, the "world's cheapest car." But in an op-ed piece for Forbes, Projjal Dutta, the director of sustainability initiatives for the MTA, writes that American critics should look to their own example if they expect developing nations to follow a more sustainable path.

As with many other issues, the world will expect America's "talk" -- say, urging China and India not to become auto-centric -- to be accompanied by "walk," at home. That, unfortunately, despite early glimmers of hope, is not happening. The stimulus bill has allocated about 8 billion dollars to transit, compared with 30 billion to highways. This is roughly in keeping with the traditional 80/20 split of federal transportation funds that have been enshrined since the Eisenhower days. If we are to get serious about halting climate-change, this split will also have to change.

Dutta cites Japanese and European models -- "Make cars, buy cars, just don't drive them all the time." -- as potential templates for India and other developing economies, so long as they, too, make adequate investments in public transportation.

The same could be said of the U.S., where the average citizen consumes 25 times as much energy as the average Indian. Dutta suggests America will need to commit to a long-term, "multi-generational" approach to transit development if it wants the kind of results already evident in its most urbanized cities.

The average Texan consumes approximately 500 million BTU per year, about six to seven times that consumed by a resident of New York City or San Francisco. The difference largely results from level of dependence on the automobile. Metropolitan regions where many people travel by public transportation (or by bicycles or on foot) are inherently more carbon-efficient than places that rely almost exclusively on automobiles, which is to say, most of the United States.

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Defying Media Spin, Poll Shows Public Support for Delhi BRT

delhi_brt_graph2.jpg 

A couple of weeks ago we wrote about how the new bus rapid transit system in Delhi, India was taking a drubbing from local media. Despite the fact that buses were packed with commuters following the launch of the pilot program, newspaper and TV reporters were quick to proclaim it a failure. But a recent poll gives Delhi BRT high marks -- and not only from those using it. The City Fix reports:

An independent commuter survey conducted by Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment found that commuters overwhelmingly support the new BRT system in Delhi. For some, the result may be surprising after the initial operational glitches and media blitz declaring the new bus corridor a disaster. While there are several things that should be improved with the new system, as with any project, the outpouring of support for the new bus corridor suggests that it would be both a strategic and political mistake to scrap the project.

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Bus Rapid Transit Under Fire in Delhi, India


As a new class of automobile owners floods the streets of India with cheap cars, the city of Delhi is trying to stem the tide with a new Bus Rapid Transit program. Unfortunately, along with the cars has come the requisite sense of entitlement and modal prejudice, as EMBARQ reports:

This last week Delhi began a trial run for its first bus rapid transit corridor, a 5.8 kilometer stretch in the southern part of the city. To put it mildly, the start has been anything but stellar: a Google News search for "brt delhi" comes up with over 70 news articles from the last week, almost all of them sensationally pessimistic. Here are a few of the headlines: "BRT nightmare for school kids on way home," "Kids bear the brunt of BRT mess," "Delhi bus corridor: Fiasco continues," "BRT corridor chaos worse than ever."

From what I've heard from our experts in Mumbai, the project has had several hiccups like lack of signage, signal systems not working properly, bus breakdowns, and motorcycles and bicycles entering the bus lanes. But overall these are problems that can be fixed with time and bus operations can be improved.

What seems to be a bigger problem than the hitches and hiccups of the system itself is the destructive roll that the media has played, unfairly skewing the coverage of the trial run to make the problem seem worse than it actually is.

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Nano Technology

Burning_Nano_540x324.jpg

The much-hyped and much-criticized Tata Nano, a car that will hit the Indian market retailing for a mere 100,000 rupees -- the equivalent of $2,500 -- got a perplexing nod of approval from the Economist newsmagazine last week:

Commuting in India's cities can be both cosy and deadly. Children squeeze snugly between father at the handlebars of a motorcycle, and mother riding side-saddle at the back. This precarious balancing act, says Mr Tata was the "visual target" he had in mind when he first conceived of the need "to create another form of transport." About 1,800 people die on Delhi's roads each year, perhaps one-third of them on two-wheelers. Only 5% die in cars. Tata's project may pose risks for investors, but it promises unaccustomed safety for customers.

While we don't have all the data needed to crunch the assumptions in that road-death statistic (what percentage are traveling in cars to begin with, for instance?), it's hard to imagine that an influx of Tata Nanos is going to magically bring order to the streets of India. A New York Times article discussing chaotic driving habits in the country's capital quotes a police official in New Delhi on his views:

"My concern is not with cars. My concern is with drivers," said Suvashish Choudhary, the deputy commissioner of police. "Every new car will bring new drivers who are not trained for good city driving."

In China, the other huge new market targeted by auto manufacturers, recently released statistics suggest his concern is well-placed. Road deaths there are on the rise, even as they decline in other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, protesters on the site of the factory that will manufacture the new car torched the Nano in effigy (above) in protest over the company's seizure of farmland to make way for the plant: "Until farmers get back their land forcibly acquired for the Tata Motors small car plant at Singur," said one organizer, according to the Economic Times of India, "we will not allow the company to manufacture cars there."

Photo: Strdel/AFP/Getty Images