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mass motorization

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?

From one billion cars to one billion bicycles

Sintana Vergara's picture

Bike path in New York City

In 1993, when I was 10 years old, my family took a trip to Beijing, where the large boulevards provided us with an image that seemed reversed: bicycles everywhere, punctuated by the occasional car. The young and old rode nearly identical two-wheeled machines to get where they needed to, and the internal combustion engines were sidelined, weaving their way through an army of peddlers. At that time, writes Kristof in 1988, 76% of road space in China’s capital was taken up by bicycles – and one in every two people owned a bicycle (that’s 5.6 million bikes for 10 million people).

Fast forward 20 years: Beijing’s traffic patterns are impressive for a very different reason. Cars now clog the streets, slowing down rush hour traffic to 9 miles per hour, and bicycles have all but disappeared. Chinese consumers have overwhelmingly embraced the car - from 1990 to 2000, their number increased from 1.1 to 6 million (a 445% leap). The hunger for cars is growing; China is now home to over 78 million cars, of which 6.5 million are in Beijing alone.