Mitigating the curse of the car in Indian cities

On one hand, there is a thirst for bigger and more expensive cars. On the other, there is the state's inability to provide strong enough disincentives and efficient alternatives. Together these are destroying our cities and our communities slowly but steadily. What is the way out?

Co-authored by Dattatraya T Devare and Saurabh Ketkar

If the train transformed the way we think about a nation and distance, then it is the car that has transformed the way we think about public spaces and community. Prior to the invention of the private motor car, the street was an integral part of the community; children played on them, people gathered to share news, exchange views and traded goods and services. After the car invaded this integral communal space, the way we look at the world around us has changed forever. 

In India today, our citizens aspire to be car owners and homeowners, both being status symbols. Our thirst for these status symbols, especially bigger and more expensive cars, is not only burdening us, but destroying our cities and our communities slowly and steadily. After the invention of the car, the street is only a utility. It no longer serves as a space for the community to grow and thrive, but only a commodity to be used and forgotten about. Our thirst for cars is tipping the balance against any equality we as a society can aspire towards, even if it is only on our streets. 

In India, the car is the curse of our cities. We do not and will never have the infrastructure to quench our thirst for cars in this country. India cannot afford the American Dream. It took India around 60 years to have 100 million registered vehicles, but just seven years to reach 200 million, according to an analysis of government data by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). 

According to data obtained from the Transport Department,Government of Karnataka under RTI, RTOs in Bangalore had 2097371 cars, jeeps, motor cabs, maxi cabs and other taxis as on 31 March 2018.This number went up to 2206977 as on 31st March 2019. The addition in one year was 109606 (300 per day). For a population of 12.34 million, the car population of 2206977 works out to one car for every 5.59 persons. 

Indian authorities seem to be under the belief that roads are an infinite commodity, when nothing could be further from the truth. We cannot grow our roads infinitely, but the population, and the number of cars keeps growing. This is completely unsustainable and there are ways to make this situation bearable. The authorities though, seem to be doing precious little about this..

Why cars thrive

There are many policies that can be implemented to mitigate this situation. When governments aggressively try to improve public transport infrastructure, it discourages purchase of private vehicles. But a city like Bangalore, with a population of 12.34 million and an area of 712 sq km, has only 42.3 kms of metro service functioning as of today. 

The roads still play a critical role in our transport infrastructure. The once profitable BMTC is today running in losses. The fleet has stagnated at 6500 buses and the reason given is that there is no space on the road for buses, but we somehow have the space to add 300 cars every day to our streets.

Another curse unique to our cities is the free parking that cars enjoy in most places. If we think that paying for parking is a first world phenomenon, Bangkok, Jakarta and Hanoi have public parking charges on their streets. In India, we pay a road tax once, when the car is purchased, and thereafter, do not pay anything or pay a nominal fee for routinely trespassing public property. Public land/property is limited in area and its market value especially in CBD(Central Business District) is very high Free usage of such property is really a huge benefit available to a small section of the society and the inequality is simply glaring.

An important trend in car usage is that the number of big cars is increasing. It is almost impossible to get data about size-wise population of cars from RTOs. After considerable effort, official data was obtained (under RTI) from one of the RTOs in Bangalore for the years 2016 and 2017. 

It is given in Table 1 below:

Table 1

Size wise population of cars – Yeshwantpur, Bangalore RTO
2016 2017
Size range (sq ft) Classification Absolute number Percentage Absolute number Percentage
<60 SMALL 64629 43.44 66584 40.43
60-75 MEDIUM 49937 33.56 55952 33.98
75-90 BIG 29698 19.96 37013 22.48
>90 VERY BIG 4517 3.04 5125 3.11
Total 148781 100 164674 100

Table 1: Data obtained through RTI

This table shows that the percentage of small cars has gone down in 2017 as compared to 2016. During the same period, the percentage of big and very big cars has gone up. This highlights a trend that people are buying bigger cars. These cars occupy more space on the roads and have the same average occupancy as the small/medium cars. Thus, the per person space used by passengers travelling in such cars is significantly more. This violates one of the principles of the National Urban Transport Policy 2006, namely “Equitable allocation of road space”

There is a perception that bigger cars pay a much higher amount of life-time road tax. It is partly true because the price of a big car is more. However,this tax is charged only on the price and not on the area occupied by the vehicle (in sq feet OR sq meters). A sample study of a few vehicle models shows that the life-time road tax on big cars is not proportionately higher as compared to small cars. This indicates that the tax structure does not follow the principle of equity.   

How can this change?

Vivek Moorthy, a professor from IIM-Bangalore has come up with the concept of Vehicle Area Tax or VATAX on all vehicles, especially cars. According to him, the rationale of this tax is that a car is mobile land not paid for, unless it is within the owner’s premises. This tax is proposed to be calculated based on the area (size) of the vehicle. If the vehicle measures 5 square metres around the edges, and the tax rate is Rs 3000 per square metre, then the vehicle owner would have to pay Rs 15,000. VATAX is also proposed to be an annual tax and not a Life-Time tax.

This VATAX could be a way to make private vehicle owners pay for the inequality they create on the street. This VATAX collected can be used for strengthening our public transport and pedestrian infrastructure. It is expected that due to VATAX, those who wish to purchase vehicles will choose smaller vehicles over larger ones to save on VATAX, and even those buying luxury vehicles will choose the smaller variants instead of the large ones to avoid a high tax. 

Another dimension of inequality pertaining to cars is the use of diesel as fuel. The table below gives details of size-wise and fuel-wise data about cars registered in RTO Yeshwantpur, Bangalore.

Table 2

Fuel wise population of cars in Yeshwantpur RTO
2016 2017
Size range (sq ft) Classification Petrol Diesel Petrol Diesel % Increase Petrol % Increase Diesel
<60 SMALL 64625 0 66573 0 3% 0
60-75 MEDIUM 25879 24058 29281 26671 13.15% 10.86%
75-90 BIG 9376 20322 12526 24487 33.60% 20.50%
>90 VERY BIG 196 4321 250 4875 27.55% 12.82%

Table 2: Data obtained through RTI

In India, diesel is sold at a lower price than petrol. Diesel is also relatively more polluting than petrol. The lower price of diesel is intended to regulate the prices of essential goods and services (through lower transportation cost) and to keep a check on inflation. But today there are no barriers to buy private diesel vehicles and the numbers speak for themselves. (Refer Table 2 above) 

More people are buying diesel cars to reduce the operational expenses on their cars, while polluting the city with impunity. Diesel variants are priced slightly higher than their petrol counterparts, but it is not significant enough for the consumer to be discouraged to buy them. We can see that in the “Big” segment of cars, the growth in diesel vehicles is a whopping 20.5 percent over the previous year alone. 

We have to penalize diesel cars in some way before our cities are choked with diesel fumes. One way is to levy a diesel surcharge. Combined with VATAX, this surcharge will discouraged people from buying SUVs and MUVs that run on diesel thereby addressing both congestion and pollution. While recent sales trends do show a slowdown in the diesel variants of private vehicles, the damage already caused to the environment is very high. 

It is imperative that our urban administration takes some concrete steps in reducing the number of private vehicles on the streets of our country. India is going through rapid urbanization with our urban population nearly doubling to 814 million people in 2050 from 410 million in 2014. If a majority of India is going to live in urban areas, we have to make our cities more liveable. 

A “Pedestrian First” approach to our public spaces, effective and accessible public transportation and limited private vehicles will have to be the way to go. Time has also come to give the car industry a clear signal that a 21st century city does not belong to the car, but to the cycle, the train, the bus and the pedestrian.

[About co-author Saurabh Ketkar: Saurabh Ketkar works for a start-up in Bengaluru, but has keen interest in urban planning and inclusive development. He worked as an intern at B-PAC. An avid cyclist and trekker, he believes that riding bicycles and using public transport are means to a happier urban life in India.]


  1. Ravi Kumar says:

    Great article and well narrated. I was there in both the countries,and I feel the Japan model suits for congested roads in India or Bengaluru. But a lot of mindsets need to change as people are accustomed to free.

  2. Rsb says:

    VATAX ?. Then remove tolls, road tax, parking charges, car parking area property tax. How many taxes and charges for the same item.

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