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The Tata Nano Released at Last: Blessing or Curse?

The world's cities should aspire to a sustainable future that is not necessarily dependent on cars.

India experienced an automotive breakthrough last week: the release of the Tata Nano, the most economic vehicle in the Indian market, and arguably, in the world.

The so-called “people’s car” has received praise from many sources, such as The Economist:

Despite the Nano’s size (it is a bit over ten feet, or three metres long) its interior is surprisingly spacious. This is no accident. The car is the pet project of Ratan Tata, the Tata group’s revered chairman, who is over six feet tall. Accordingly, the Nano is optimised for the 95th percentile of American men. In South Asia, this makes the car downright cavernous. When it comes to performance, the Nano goes from zero to 100kph (60mph) in a languid 30 seconds, but it is surprisingly enjoyable to drive. And with a petrol consumption of 67mpg, few cars can match its fuel-efficiency.

And the San Francisco Chronicle:

Don’t dismiss the Nano as a small, poor man’s car that will cause a mere ripple on the world market. The Nano is a radical innovation, with the potential to revolutionize automobile manufacturing and distribution.

The tiny Nano incorporates three innovations, which together make it huge. First, the Nano uses a modular design that enables a knowledgeable mechanic to assemble the car in a workshop. Thus, Tata can outsource assembly to independent workshops that can then assemble the car on buyers’ orders. This innovation not only removes costly labor from the manufacturer’s side but also allows for distributed entrepreneurship on the dealer’s side.

Second, the low cost of the Nano comes from a combination of its no-frills design and its use of numerous lighter components, from simple door handles and bulbs to the transmission and engine parts. The lighter vehicle enables a more energy-efficient engine that gets 67 miles to the gallon.

From the perspective of the automotive industry, the release of the Tata Nano is remarkable indeed---a success of Indian ingenuity and, hopefully, a business hit.

The Nano, and vehicles like it, will help in reducing energy consumption in India and decreasing local and global emissions, compared to the “business as usual” scenario, due to the car’s high efficiency. Cars like the Nano will also improve the quality of life for those able to afford it. (It is important to note that the privileged few who can afford the Nano still comprise a minority in India and the rest of the developing world.)

But the Nano is not enough to solve mobility and urban development problems of cities in a sustainable way. Much more is needed.

The problem is that more cars — no matter their size or propulsion — bring more congestion, accidents, sprawl, and, if they rely on fossil fuels, more local and global pollution.

Cities should aspire to a sustainable future that is not necessarily dependent on cars (and the highways and parking spaces that come along with them.) This argument is very well expressed by organizations like India’s Center for Science and the Enviroment, which recently issued a press release that says they are “against all cars, and not just the Nano. Our cities don’t need more cars; they need better public transport.”

Cities can be more successful and livable if they pursue some of the following types of strategies:

  • “active transport” (i.e. bicycling, walking)
  • mixed-use and denser development with better public spaces
  • integrated mass transit
  • innovative infrastructure and manufacturing that includes nice ideas like the Nano
  • car-use demand management, for example:
    • downtown parking and driving restrictions
    • congestion and pollution charges
    • equitable taxes that cover externalities of these restrictions, not the subsidies in fuel

I recommend implementing the above strategies as a baseline response, even if the individual Nano car releases less emissions than the two-stroke motorcycle or the heavy vehicles used in the U.S.

Supporting better vehicles is not enough---and is even wrong---for society, as a whole.

This post originally appeared on TheCityFix.com.

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