Efforts are being made by consumer groups towards having more eco-friendly modes of transport in various parts of Asia, such as India, Malaysia and the Philippines.

By Frederick Noronha

April 2000

Is there really no alternative to the ubiquitous car? Can human cities not find more sustainable modes of transport? In various pockets of Asia, ingenious efforts are underway to find a practical answer to this question.

SUSTRAN Resource Centre, a not-for-profit organisation, reports from Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Calcutta and Tokyo. SUSTRAN, which stands for sustainable transport, has a special focus on Asia and provides information, research and advice on people-centred and sustainable approaches to urban transport for low- and middle-income cities.

As part of the Earth Day ‘99 celebrations, Cycling Advocates, the Manila-based bicycle advocacy group, together with various environmental groups, organised a 50-kilometre bike ride around the metropolitan area and held a people’s march for clean air.

More than 1,000 cyclists, some of them colourfully costumed as horses, fireflies or grasshoppers, joined the leisurely ride which began around 7.30 a.m. and ended around 1 p.m. The bike ride showcased the feasibility of urban cycling while at the same time decrying the worsening conditions for cycling, primarily the poor air quality.

This bike ride  was dubbed as  the  ‘Tour of the Fireflies’  (a poignant reference to the fireflies which have fled the city because of the bad air). The bike ride took participants through seven cities in the Metro Manila area and finished with a rally, a picnic lunch, an environmental fair, and a concert.

Sustainable Transport Environment Penang (STEP), founded in 1997, is another network of local NGOs based in Penang, Malaysia which promotes a more participatory transport planning process. It is pushing for the development of a cycling master plan. STEP, aptly named, has also developed a list of ‘indicators’ to use for getting media attention and building public awareness.

Along with other groups, STEP opposes plans to build a second road link between the island of Penang and the mainland, arguing that the full potential of the existing ferry services should be exploited first. STEP also includes an active group of advocates  for disabled people’s access. This group has produced a compelling photo essay of the difficulties faced by wheelchair users and blind people on a short stretch of one of the city’s main streets.

In Japan, the Forum on Automobile Issues in Japan (FAJ) is a sustainable transport advocacy group. Earlier, it was known as the Demotorisation Forum Japan. FAJ campaigns for human-oriented and sustainable transport. It would like to see less automobile traffic, safer walking/cycling and better quality of public transportation services. FAJ is planning a Car-Free Day festival for Earth Day 2000. This will be Japan’s first Car-Free Day event.

There are also moves for more people- and environment-friendly transport in the Klang Valley, which is part of Kuala Lumpur’s metropolitan area in Malaysia. The Forum for Equitable and Environment-friendly Transport (FEET) aims to promote more people-friendly transport, especially by promoting the interests of pedestrians, public-transport users and bicyclists.

FEET includes representatives of residents’ associations, disabled people, transport experts, members of the press and concerned individuals. FEET has first raised its voice over the failure of relevant authorities to build enough pedestrian crossings across a newly-opened expressway, the Damansara-Puchong Highway. This came after a serious accident sparked a controversy. In a number of places along the road, school students and other residents have had no choice but to scamper across six lanes of high-speed traffic to cross the road.

Such efforts - though not widely noticed - are being made in India, too. Dr Debashish  Bhattacharyya  is  a   public  transport  campaigner  in  Calcutta.   He  and  his colleagues are lobbying to save the Calcutta Tramways from a  slow death due  to official neglect,  mismanagement and replacement by diesel buses. It is feared that the loss of the trams will only hasten motorisation and the deterioration of public transport service and worsen air-pollution, which already exceeds World Health Organisation standards by many times.

Protests have stopped the tram system from being totally dismantled, but maintenance and management of the system remains poor. Activists and academics estimate that reviving the CTC trams would cost roughly $25-$35 million, or $29 per annual passenger, but the agency hasn’t even requested the money.

By contrast, Japan’s OECF (Overseas Economic Corporation Fund) has agreed to fund a second line on the Calcutta metro. This showpiece of Calcutta has only about 200,000 daily passengers, costs $1,860 per annual passenger, and has highway flyovers at several downtown intersections, costing the municipality $128 per motorist.

In a poor city like Calcutta, it is argued that this is a serious misallocation of scarce public funds. The Japanese-funded flyovers are now the subject of a court case over allegations of corruption, as reported by SUSTRAN Resource Centre.

In Mumbai, ambitious plans for the Mumbai-Pune Expressway recently ran into trouble. The High Court of Bombay has admitted a writ petition filed by several NGOs and affected villagers, opposing the land acquisition for the Mega City Project which is part of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.

The High Court has also stayed further acquisition of land pending the hearing and final disposal of the petition and has restrained the respondents (the Maharashtra Government and the Mahasrashtra State Road Development Corporation) from evicting, or interfering in any manner with the land in the possession and occupation of the persons residing in the different tribal areas.

A new book, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (published by Three Rivers Press, USA), which examines which consumer alternatives cause the least and most environmental damage, comes to the conclusion that only a few consumer activities are responsible for the vast majority of consumer-related environmental ill-effects.

Some 134 consumer spending choices were grouped into 50 categories. These included furnishings, clothing, computers and vehicles. The authors discovered that most environmental degradation is linked to just seven categories: cars; meat; produce and grains; household appliances and lighting; home heating and cooling; home construction; and household water and sewage. Of these, cars and light trucks cause the most environmental damage overall, including nearly half of the toxic air pollution, and more than one-quarter of the greenhouse gases. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Frederick Noronha is a Goa-based journalist, with an interest in developmental and environmental issues.