I still remember the day I bought it. It gleamed. It purred. It was sleek, edgy and sharp just the thing for the cosmopolitan sophisticate I took myself to be. Cinema adverts showed it racing down cobbled streets, through piazzas and past palaces in elegant European cities. My friends commented, completely irrelevantly for your respectable correspondent of course, that the Toyota Celica was a “total babe-magnet”. (For those of advancing years, this is youth-speak for: “designed to entice the attentions of attractive young women”.) The day I took possession of the keys from the balding car salesman, who could not be described, even by his mother, as a babe magnet, I was a very satisfied customer.
The glamorous new silver bullet served us well as we cruised to meetings, to see family and to the airport for overseas trips. It had style, it was smart, comfortable and dependable, and of course there was something wonderful about being able to step outside your own front door and roll away, particularly in a country whose public transport system evolved in the age of the dinosaurs and never moved on. There was a novelty factor too: unlike most British people we didn't pass our tests until our thirties and were still unused to this amazing convenience.
But it also had an evil side. That car simply made me drive too fast. It was so low to the ground, so aerodynamic and silent that I seemed to have no choice in the matter. My wife had no such problem, but that's because she has extraterrestrial powers. I took road-signs as friendly advice rather than instructions and often simply failed to see speed limit signs, (which you'd think would have qualified me superbly to drive in Dhaka). But of course I couldn't escape the speed cameras that line our roads. I ended up with a whole fistful of fines and warnings. I was probably eligible for frequent failure points from the local police force. I nearly totalled up enough penalties to lose my licence.
I was instructed to attend a workshop for regular speeding offenders. We sat around in guilty silence like a group of reformed alcoholics, and had to introduce ourselves and our reason for speeding. Most had valuable excuses like: “I had an urgent sales meeting”, “I was rushing home to take care of my ill parents”. “My wife was pregnant” or “I was pregnant.” As for me, I could only glumly admit that I'd been absent-mindedly dreaming. I was the only one in this utterly incompetent and embarrassing position and felt the scorn of my more worthy fellow-offenders, the blood rising to my face.
The professionally amiable facilitators in their reassuring green tee-shirts showed us all kinds of gruesome statistics and went into a graphic explanation of just how many people were likely to be affected by a single traffic accident, from the victim, to family, partners, employees, friends. At that moment, a ray of clarity pierced my cloudy brain and I finally understood the significance of the round thing called the speedometer, and the need to consult it from time to time. I left a changed man.
But by then the appeal of the evil car had begun to wear off. It became just a vehicle, a metal crate to get us from A to B. What's more, it needed insuring, servicing, taxing, road tests and repairs, and anyway most of the time it sat outside our house back home, nothing more than a thief-magnet.
So one fine day we reached a life-changing conclusion. We decided to sell it and embark on a carless existence. The reasons were partly practical, partly financial and partly environmental. On the latter point, I've probably clocked up enough air miles in my time to warrant a hundred decades in hell, but it's never too late to convert to saving the world. From now on we'll just have to factor in more time for journeys, take the limping trains or the creaky buses.
This momentous change in our existence made me start thinking about the whole impact and role of cars in our lives. The French intellectual Andre Gorz, in a brilliant piece called “The Social Ideology of the Motor Car” (written, ironically, over 30 years ago when the problem was nowhere near its current proportions in the mega-cities of the world), points out that cars were initially a luxury for the privileged classes. As such they were like castles or diamonds only valuable to the extent that you had something no-one else did. If everyone has access to the same luxury, no-one benefits any more.
But this rarefied state of affairs wasn't of much use to the oil barons and corporate car-making giants, who saw gold, and quickly set about widening the ownership of cars beyond the elites in order to create a mass market for their product. As so often in the world, Joe Ordinary was unwittingly a mere consuming pawn at the mercy of a few very powerful people.
Of course, now that the magnates have won and far more people have cars worldwide, your average city journey anywhere on the planet, certainly including Dhaka, is probably slower than the same trip on horseback. Having air-conditioning is probably the sole advantage to owning a car here for example. Often, it'd be easier, if only the weather were more inviting, to get out and walk, or perhaps crawl. Even so, a friend of mine who is an authority on transport says the actual volume of traffic is not the key problem: it's the lack of lane control which really makes the roads tangled.
But there are other drawbacks to mass car ownership. Consider the impact that it has on our city itself. When the motor car begins to dominate our thinking, and becomes available to all, then of course we need wider roads. Once we get wider roads, more people buy cars, until you end up with cities in total gridlock. You also then need flyovers, the clearing of residential space, pushing people further and further out into the suburban sprawl. Contrast today's concrete jungle with the idyllic evocations I keep reading of leafy Dhanmondi and Lalmatia just a couple of decades back.
As the city extends ever outwards, people end up living further and further away from where they work. Gorz points out that the average American spends 1500 hours a year, or 30 hours a week, in their car. I wonder what the equivalent figure would be here for travellers in Dhaka? Not far off that. Even if it were halved, that's a lot of time to be in your car. Even if it's a Toyota Celica with surround sound.
Over time, this process leads inevitably to a breakdown of community--cities become collections of atomised individuals all sealed in their little metal bubbles, who get home exhausted in the evening. In the States in many vast urban sprawls it's impossible even to do the shopping without travelling to some gigantic concretised space miles from your home, where your possible interaction with other consumer units (who used to be known as “customers”), is very limited. Not much time left for neighbourliness, for weekend chats over the garden fence.
This process of sprawl is clearly also true of Dhaka, but the way things are at the moment, those who can afford a car no longer really have a choice about whether or not to own one. From being a luxury, the car has now become a necessity. The superiority of an efficient mass transport system should be obvious to anyone--fast, air-conditioned buses criss-crossing the city (in properly managed bus lanes of course) would make a huge difference.
However, a credible alternative to the way things are would require such a comprehensive rethink of the way we run our city and live our working and personal lives that it seems a very dim and distant prospect. But it would begin with the realisation that this is not a transport issue alone- it's a question which goes to the very heart of the community we want to be.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007