Of Cars and Roads

The editor in chief of India Today, Mr Aroon Purie, provides us with an excellent example of illogic that would delight anyone with a keen sense of the absurd. Here’s what he writes at the start of his editorial of Aug 27th:

If your city has 7.5 lakh cars and their average length is five metres, what road length would you need to park them? Answer: 3,750 km. What if your city has just 2,045 km of roads? Gridlock of course. That’s Mumbai, and every time I visit our financial capital, I wonder how India became the economic envy of the world.

It comes as news to me that India is “the economic envy of the world” — whatever “economic envy” means. Be that as it may, let’s see what’s wrong with what he writes.

First, the average length of Indian cars is not five meters. Indeed, I doubt that Indian cars on average are longer than American cars — which are only 4 meters long on average. So a reasonable estimate for the average length of Indian cars would be 3 meters. Itty-bitty marutis and padminis and hyundais don’t grow all that big. So if you were to park all the Mumbai cars bumper to bumper in a single-file, they would stretch only 2,250 kms, not 3,750 as estimated by Mr Purie.

Second, roads are not single lane. They are at least double lanes. So you are unlikely to run out of Mumbai road surface to park all the cars Mumbai. Leading a story on traffic congestion by comparing the total length of roads to the total length of cars is meaningless at best. But that is neither here not there.

People don’t just park cars on the roads. They drive cars. Congestion has something to do with the traffic handling capacity of road, not how many kms of roads will be required to park cars in a single file.

Traffic handling capacity has to do with road condition (pot holed roads, roads dug up for this or that reason), traffic control (appropriately timed lights, for instance), traffic type (people, cattle, bicycles, autos, two-wheelers), other uses of the road (vegetable vendors, families living on the streets, kids playing, kids begging), etc.

Too many cars can of course lead to congestion. But anyone familiar with any city in India should know that it is not just the number of cars that is the problem. The problem is incompetency and corruption.

Incompetent traffic engineers make roads that make no sense. I have written about that in the past. (I highly recommend this post, Triple-point of the world at Zero Degrees Humanity, even if I say so myself.) Then there are dug up roads and pot-holed roads. That’s where corruption comes in.

You may say that I am making a mountain of a mole hill. Actually it is not a trivial issue. We are not experts. We depend on people to reason things out and tell us what’s wrong and what needs to be done to fix the problems. The editor of a major news magazine, if he takes on the task of helping us comprehend the world, has the responsibility to make sure that he himself understands it properly.

All too often people just uncritically accept what is being reported. It is important to point out silliness when you see it. It will reduce the quantity of silliness going around.

Anyway, it is a confederacy of dunces — the planners don’t really understand their job and the reporters don’t understand the problem.

13 thoughts on “Of Cars and Roads

  1. True. Its not something trivial though it seems like it. It is very dangerous when opinion influencers like these play with words and figures.

    In fact, I have been trying to talk to people about how even small errors make a difference when they enter the national collective conscience through the way of these thought emitters.

    Really glad that you wrote this post and that there is some one out there who also thinks alike. 🙂

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  2. Atanu, bigger issue is cars parked on roads in high cost residential areas where societies do not provide car parking within the society premises. Going rate for open land in these areas goes anything above Rs 50000/- sq ft which simply means a 100 sq ft parking space costing not less than Rs 50,00,000/-,not belonging to owner of car and for public use, is occupied free of cost. May be Government can tap this good source of revenue if can not do any thing else to this issue.

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  3. Hello,
    slightly out of purview of this post, but still
    The govt actually levies a road tax, now if the roads are bad(inspite of us paying the tax) the govt should actually be held responsible for all the ensuing damage to our cars right?

    We are penalised for not promptly paying our taxes, now shouldn’t the government be penalised(however absurd it may seem)for not properly utilising the taxes that we pay?

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  4. Aroon Purie must have signed off on a editorial prepared by his minions who took the the Qualis/Innova as the average Indian car. At some point, do post about the economics of the Nano. Is it cheap per se and/or because of the subsidies Tata has received for manufacture? Even then, it is so shabby, sub-standard and unsafe, no wonder folks prefer the Suzukis and Hyundais.

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  5. “Too many cars can of course lead to congestion. But anyone familiar with any city in India should know that it is not just the number of cars that is the problem. The problem is incompetency and corruption.”

    Of course. Poverty is not a problem either – incompetency and corruption is. Ditto with hunger, environmental damage and everything else.

    Pesky little fact: people who actually do something about corruption (think Aruna Roy/Nikhil Dey) aren’t so narrow-minded to think that it’s the only problem India is facing.

    The number of cars and the changing modal share in urban transportation IS a problem and it cannot be solved by fixing potholes.

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  6. Point taken. I feel bad for that editor – I bet he was rejoicing his spectacular opening for the article.

    All the problems you outline in traffic handling capacity is valid. I like to turn the attention back to something equally important if not more – the active participant in the traffic – the driver! If every driver takes a moment to show some patience and discipline with respect for rules, the traffic problem could get one step closer to having a relief. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially as far as any matter that concerns Indian public. Taken individually, Indian drivers are perhaps the most skilled by virtue of driving effectively inside chaos – but collectively we are a critical factor in sustaining this mess.

    BTW, We should connect if you are still on your roadtrip.

    – Sudhar

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  7. I would like to give credit to the editor for connecting length of the road and number of cars in respect to the problem of congestion.I would miss it otherwise.

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  8. yea, well-said Mr. Atanu. Journalists have to be responsible. they are influencers of public opinion & should put forth their views well-substantiated by facts. Otherwise, they are no different than rabble-rousing politicians.

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