Motoring is coming to the masses in India. Tomorrow, India’s Tata Motors will unveil its “People’s Car,” which carries a price tag of approximately $2,600. The Wall Street Journal also reports that Nissan, Ford, and other car makers, tempted by a burgeoning worldwide market for a car with a low price point, are considering developing their own super-cheap models.
This is good news. Cars make it easier for people to get around and do things they want to do—like find better jobs, and educational and social opportunities. Expanding access to automobiles will expand opportunity and surely be a boost to economic growth. Last July, the Reason Foundation’s Ted Balaker wrote an excellent paper, Why Mobility Matters to Personal Life, which The Insider excerpted in its Summer issue. Balaker argued that policymakers have paid insufficient attention to the problem of traffic congestion, ignoring the nexus between mobility and opportunity:
The freedom of mobility helps make other freedoms more meaningful. The more mobility we enjoy, the more choices we have. Mobility gives us more of what’s important in life.
Imagine that you are in the center of a circle. Call it your opportunity circle.
The space within the circle represents the amount of ground you can get to in a reasonable amount of time, say, one hour. The dots represent all the possible jobs you can apply for. The bigger your opportunity circle, the more jobs you can get to, and the better chance you have of landing the job that is right for you. If your mobility improves, the circle grows and you have more opportunities. If mobility degrades, the circle shrinks and you have fewer opportunities. And the dots need not represent just job opportunities. If you are an employer the dots could represent potential customers or your available labor pool. The dots could actually represent just about anything, from dining opportunities (area restaurants) to opportunities for love (available singles).
Of course, there are always naysayers. Financial Times reports:
Environmentalists … fear that already clogged roads and polluted cities will soon be overwhelmed by millions of learner drivers, especially as other Indian industrialists now have plans for low-priced cars. …
Climate change expert R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the joint Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, recently said the idea of the [$2,500] car bringing motoring to a genuinely mass market in India was giving him “nightmares”.
Environmentalists warn that with Indian emission norms still lagging several years behind those of the European Union and pollution levels at critical levels in many of the larger cities, the race to produce a super-cheap car is likely to impose massive costs on society that are not adequately reflected in dealers' prices.
According to the Financial Times story, critics also point out that adding more cars to India’s overcrowded roads will make worse an already bad traffic safety problem.
Pollution and unsafe roads can indeed be problems, but there are solutions to those problems that don’t involve keeping the world’s poor stuck where they are. When critics say that cars are a problem, what they usually mean is that cars are a problem when other people drive them.