Real cost of car-centric cities (in Pakistan and elsewhere)

(co-authored with Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque)

DRIVING a car takes a personal, societal, financial and environmental toll. Since the cost of cars is high, we should not support development projects (roads, flyovers and bypasses) and policies (misuse of urban land and poor zoning) that subsidise and necessitate their use. Too many automobiles make us unsafe, unhealthy, unhappy, unfriendly, and, in general, miserable as a society.

Among the costs that cars exact is that on our personal health and safety. Excessive driving causes stress and ill health. Gallup and Healthways surveys have determined that longer commutes lead to more chronic pain, higher cholesterol and general unhappiness in drivers. Moreover, driving everywhere leads to obesity; in the US alone, the cost of obesity in 2008 was $147 billion.

Secondly, cars have a societal cost: increased traffic decreases social capital. Donald Appleyard, in his now famous 1972 study, found that residents of high-traffic areas have fewer friends and acquaintances than residents of light-traffic locations. Traffic also causes noise pollution, which makes us more intolerant of each other.

Thirdly, cars cost us a great deal financially. There is the initial, upfront payment. Then we have to pay for financing (and hidden fees), car maintenance, parking, and fuel. According to some back-of-the-envelope calculations, people in Lahore pay Rs24bn per year for fuel and oil changes. In addition, there is the expected cost of treating accidents and injuries that inevitably occur when we drive.

There is what we would call an opportunity cost as well. That is, with the money tied up in their cars, individuals could instead have invested in activities with greater returns or of higher value to their families (like holidays). Also, the overuse of cars costs us in terms of productivity when we are injured and cannot work, or are stuck in traffic.

Fourthly, an excess of cars adversely affects the environment. According to an online environment-cost calculator, we emit 1.2 pounds (0.54kg) of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by driving 1.5 miles (2.4km). Cars in Karachi alone are releasing roughly one million pounds of carbon every day, and 126m pounds of carbon every month.

Current policies enabling sprawl and subsidising high-speed traffic mean that people must own and use cars excessively. So what can we do?

As a guiding principle, we should keep everyone, not just the rich or people with higher incomes, in mind when we plan and zone our cities. As Mayor Enrique Peñalosa of Bogota noted, “Mobility is a right for all”. Peñalosa also noted that the modes of transport of the poor —walking, bicycling, and public transportation — need to be prioritised, as the bulk of the population uses them. We thus need to create more space for these modes.

First, we need to slow down cars and create more spaces for people. After the Second World War, Copenhagen had so many cars it came to a standstill. They prohibited cars in some areas, and the city thrived. Restricting the use of the car and slowing down the speed of vehicles is required to create space for people.

We can also charge a congestion tax, like Singapore and London, during peak hours in busier areas of cities. In addition, we can tax high-speed lanes and charge parking fees on a per-hour basis. These taxes can help reduce congestion. We also need to re-evaluate our zoning policies to discourage sprawl, and build mixed-use development, creating combined residential, office, commercial, and entertainment spaces within walking distance of each other.

Next we need to make more room for biking and walking, both currently hazardous activities. In cities around the world, separate bike lanes are being created; bike-sharing programmes are encouraged and sponsored by the corporate sector. We should also hold events to celebrate walking and biking like Ciclovía. Held in cities like Bogota and Medellin, Ciclovía is an event in which main roads are blocked on Sundays and public holidays and reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Finally, we need to improve public transportation. Thanks to the emphasis our cities place on the use of cars, our public transport system has been allowed to erode. If we tax and regulate cars, we will have the funds and space required for public transport.

The famous Danish architect Jan Gehl said that if we make more roads, we get more cars; and if we make more space for people, we get more people, which in turn give us more vital and productive cities. When planning new development projects and designing urban policies, we should factor in the real cost of cars to an average citizen’s personal, social, and financial well-being, and to our environment. We should not repeat the mistakes that developed countries made in the last century in building their cities around cars.

This opinion was published in The Dawn on 16th May, 2016.