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Motorization and its discontents

Roger Gorham's picture
Photo: Sarah Farat/World Bank
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  While visiting the World Bank library the other day, I was struck by how many development publications featured pictures of motor vehicles on their covers, even though most of them covered topics that had little to do with transport.  The setting and tone of the pictures varied – sometimes they showed a lone car on a rural highway, sometimes congested vehicles in urban traffic, and sometimes a car displayed proudly as a status symbol – but the prevalence of motorized vehicles as a visual metaphor for development was unmistakable to me: in the public imagination, consciously or otherwise, many people associate development with more use of motorized vehicles.

Indeed, motorization – the process of adopting and using motor vehicles as a core part of economic and daily life – is closely linked with other dimensions of development such as urbanization and industrialization.

Motorization, however, is a double-edged sword.

For many households, being able to afford their own vehicle is often perceived as the key to accessing more jobs, more services, more opportunities—not to mention a status symbol. Likewise, vehicles can unlock possibilities for firms and individual entrepreneurs such as the young man from Uganda pictured on the right, proudly showing off his brand new boda boda (motorcycle taxi). 

But motorization also comes with a serious downside, in terms of challenges that many governments have difficulty managing.  Motor vehicles can undermine the livability of cities by cluttering up roads and open spaces—the scene of chaos and gridlock in the picture below, from Accra, is a telling example. In addition, vehicles create significant safety hazards for occupants and bystanders alike… in many developing countries, road deaths have effectively reached epidemic proportions. From an environmental standpoint, motorized transport is, of course, a major contributor to urban air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Lastly, motorization contributes to countries' hard currency challenges by exacerbating their long-term demand for petroleum products.

Given these challenges, how are developing countries going to align their motorization trajectories with their development goals?  What should the World Bank advise our clients about how to manage this process?

Traffic jams, pollution, road crashes: Can technology end the woes of urban transport?

Shomik Mehndiratta's picture
Photo: Noeltock/Flickr
Will technology be the savior of urban mobility?
 
Urbanization and rising incomes have been driving rapid motorization across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. While cities are currently home to 50% of the global population, that proportion is expected to increase to 70% by 2050. At the same time, business-as-usual trends suggest we could see an additional 1 billon cars by 2050, most of which will have to squeeze into the already crowded streets of Indian, Chinese, and African cities.
 
If no action is taken, these cars threaten literally to choke tomorrow’s cities, bringing with them a host of negative consequences that would seriously undermine the overall benefits of urbanization: lowered productivity from constant congestion; local pollution and rising carbon emissions; road traffic deaths and injuries; rising inequity and social division.
 
However, after a century of relatively small incremental progress, disruptive changes in the world of automotive technology could have fundamental implications for sustainability.
 
What are these megatrends, and how can they reshape the future of urban mobility?