The Nano, BRT and India's Transportation Future

The long-awaited Tata Nano, the world's cheapest car, recently hit the streets of India. With the baseline model costing around $2500, the Nano has the potential to provide affordable mobility for India's burgeoning middle class similar to Henry Ford's Model-T in the United States a century ago.  An estimated 50 million people currently make up India's middle class, and that number is expected to rise to 500 million by 2025. 

Without widely-used and accessible public transportation systems, India's growing numbers suggest that, in a decade, it is very possible that there could be millions of Nanos and other cars in India that would further choke city streets already stifled with traffic gridlock.  While the Nano's 56 miles per gallon is noteworthy, adding millions of cars to the streets of any country would not only add to traffic congestion and pollution, it would also add millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere per year.  In his 2008 blog on the Nano, NRDC's Rich Kassel discussed this scenario and stressed the importance of public transportation in order to promote livable cities.

Some Indian leaders have apparently reached the same conclusion and launched Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems. Delhi has built a BRT system and over twelve other cities across India are in the process of establishing them.  While the Delhi BRT has had its share of complications and accidents since its inception, the BRT holds promise for viable urban centers.  A strong mass transit system is critical to reducing traffic congestion, mitigating air pollution and constraining carbon emissions.

In her visit to India this week, Secretary Clinton has prioritized the need for increased cooperation between the U.S. and India on climate change.  While the Indian environment minister repeated the government's long-held view that India will still refuse any sort of legally binding emissions targets at this time in the current climate change negotiations in the U.N.'s Copenhagen talks, India has already adopted a National Action Plan which includes  sound public transportation policies that are integrated into energy efficient urban planning.  This is an area ripe for increased inter-governmental cooperation.  Hopefully, Secretary Clinton's visit will spur both the U.S. and India to work together to scale up sustainable public transportation systems that provide livable cities and simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas pollution - so that city folks want to leave the car at home.

Kimiko Narita, San Francisco Intern, co-authored this entry.