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Motorizing the Developing World


Journal Article

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Suggested Citation:
Sperling, Daniel and Eileen Claussen (2004) Motorizing the Developing World. Access Magazine 24, 10 - 15

In rural areas and small cities of China and India, millions of small locally made three- and four-wheel “rural vehicles” are proliferating. In China, the vehicles are banned in large cities because of their slow speed and high emissions, but even so rural vehicle sales in
China outnumber those of conventional cars and trucks. These vehicles, which cost anywhere from $400 to $4,000 each, are the heart of millions of small businesses, transporting farm products, construction materials, and locally manufactured products. They also serve as the principal mode of motorized travel in rural areas.

Motorization is accelerating even more rapidly in cities. Personal vehicles, from scooters to large company cars, are improving access to goods, services, and activities, including an expanded array of job and educational opportunities. They provide unmatched flexibility, convenience, and freedom. For many individuals, vehicles are desirable as a secure and private means of travel, and as status symbols. For businesses, they are a means of increasing productivity.

But personal motorization also imposes enormous costs, especially in cities. The well-known litany includes air and noise pollution, neighborhood fragmentation, and high energy use. Motorized transport is the largest consumer of the world’s petroleum, making it central to international concerns over energy security and political stability in volatile regions. China is now the second largest importer of oil in the world, although its vehicle ownership rates are but one-fiftieth of the US’s. The developing world is an increasing source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are rising faster in transportation than in any other sector.

Developing cities and countries are in a quandary. How can they accommodate the intense desire for personal mobility while mitigating the heavy economic, environmental, and social costs of motorization? For countries such as India and China, which look to automotive manufacturing as a pillar of economic development, the dilemma is extreme.