So here’s kind of an unusual post for this blog, but bear with me, it’s cool. An acquaintance of mine on Twitter, a fellow called Vadakkus–here is his very interesting website–really likes trains. I mean, he really, really likes trains. He is from India, and as you’ll see if you go to his website, he spends a lot of time thinking and posting about various aspects of modern Indian society and how things can be better. He also writes about trains. Recently he wrote a guest article for the website 24Coaches.com, which is a site about train travel and mass transit in India, and the idea Vadakkus laid out in that article was as big and bold as they come: a very detailed technical plan for a comprehensive public transit network for his home city of Bangalore, with over a dozen lines, 611 stations and 460 miles of track. The small portion of the map shown in the header image doesn’t do it justice. Look at–and click on–the full map below the following paragraph and see it in its full amazing detail. Vadakkus has really worked out the plan in very fine-grained technical detail, and if nothing else it’s an amazing thought puzzle.
Vadakkus is not a policymaker, a transportation designer or an engineer. He has no official involvement in setting Bangalore’s transportation policy–the city is, in real life, revamping its metro system, though not on anything comparable to the scale of his suggestion. He’s an ordinary citizen frustrated with the terrible traffic gridlock that has, in his words, made Bangalore “an unlivable horror.” Bangalore, once one of the most beautiful cities in India, now suffers a host of environmental problems, from infrastructure problems to garbage pile-ups, health problems among its residents and even a mass die-off of fish in local lakes. Vadakkus’s analysis, which I highly recommend reading in full, argues that automobiles, and more specifically a cultural mindset prioritizing their ownership and use, is at the root of Bangalore’s woes. The audacity of his dream metro design is aimed at overwhelming Bangalore’s car culture and putting in its place a mass transit culture that’s fully responsive to the needs of its citizens. Admittedly this is a big idea, but it’s probably the right one. I don’t live there, but from what I’ve read Bangalore seems so far gone that only a solution of these dimensions has a chance of changing it fundamentally.
When I found his article on 24Coaches.com I spent some time poking around the map, but I admit most of my thoughts were on something Vadakkus never mentions in his article: climate change. It’s both inaccurate and unfair to blame anthropogenic climate change solely on private automobile use, because clearly there are many other big sources, such as energy generation (especially coal-burning plants), deforestation, wood fuel-burning in developing countries and the like. But reforming transportation options into lower-emissions alternatives is one of the most efficient potential solutions to climate change problems–meaning that if it was done across the board it would take a huge bite out of carbon emissions. No matter what the energy used to power the trains, mass transit is always more efficient and carbon-friendly than individual transport. Taking tens of thousands of cars off the road in Bangalore would be a huge step forward for this city, environmentally speaking, no matter how you slice it. Imagine what would happen if a plan like this were adopted in every major city in the world.
The Bangalore “dream metro” plan, I think, also identifies something else that’s relevant to climate change. It is a big–very big–and very ambitious plan. If built, this system would, as Vadakkus states, be the largest metro system in the world. It goes without saying that it would also be the costliest. I’m not even sure billions of dollars would do it; trillions is more like it. Indeed the idea seems appealing and intellectually safe precisely because it’s so pie-in-the-sky that no one could really imagine building it. As a practical matter the idea founders instantly on the very first question that would be asked about it: “But who will pay for it?” Yet–and here’s the important point–it is only ideas of this “unattainable” scope that will have any real chance of reversing the effects of climate change. Nothing less than a solution on this audacious scale will do at all. And I think, intuitively, most people know that.
This is what rush hour is like in Bangalore, India. I think we would all agree this is unsustainable.
If you stop to think about this plan, the obstacles to it becoming reality are primarily economic. No one doubts that either the engineering know-how or the industrial capacity to do it, insofar as laying track, building trains etc. is clearly within the realm of possibility. The show-stoppers all involve dollar signs. Who will pay? How will the city obtain the land necessary for the tracks and stations? Who will pay to relocate the people displaced? Who will pay the workers to dig the tunnels, lay the track and maintain 611 metro stations? Economics is often studied as if it’s a science, but it’s not a science like physics or mathematics where immutable laws of the universe govern its outcomes. Economic decisions are made by humans for human reasons. Consequently, the laws of economics are totally within the control of human beings. As attitudes and societal priorities shift, economic realities must as well. Climate change, the greatest crisis and most important issue of modern times, has the potential to shift these realities profoundly, and I think more quickly than most people realize.
One economic fact is undoubtedly true of Vadakkus’s Bangalore metro plan even under our current economic conditions: it is a good investment, no matter who pays for it. The costs of building and maintaining a system like this are far dwarfed by the long-term savings to Bangaloreans, the nation of India and the world. The carbon emissions from the cars that won’t be driven, the fuel burned by those cars, the costs of building new highways, and the health care costs for Bangaloreans afflicted by the city’s current problems are collectively far greater in real dollars than even the staggering up-front price tag of building a massive public works project like this. Furthermore, the steady work generated for the tens of thousands of people whose labor would be required to build a system like this would be a huge boom to a regional and national economy. It only looks like a bad deal if your economic horizon is too short–i.e., if you assume that most of the people who put up the money for this system, whether investors or taxpayers, should be the same people who derive most of the benefit from it. If built, a system like this could last for centuries and make the automobile as rare in Bangalore as horses are today on the streets of New York. Long-term, it’s a bargain, even with a multi-trillion dollar price tag. But our thinking about what economics means, and who should benefit from infrastructure projects, is going to have to change.
What’s driving really like in Bangalore? This video puts you in the middle of the action. Would you pay to avoid having to do this every day?
Addressing climate change and its effects is going to take nothing short of a revolution in human thought. We must rethink our assumptions, especially our economic ones, about what’s worth doing in our society and what terms like “too expensive” (for whom?) or “not worth it” (are you sure?) really mean. Falling back on outmoded and discredited ideologies–like the magical-thinking, small-minded bromide “the free market will solve it!”–is simply not an option in a world of rising seas, melting glaciers and exploding disease vectors. Thinking within the small short-term boundaries of our economic assumptions is largely what got us into the climate change mess in the first place. Thus, when considering big ideas like the Bangalore dream metro project, we should first refuse to allow objections like “it’s too expensive” or “who will pay for it?” to dominate our thinking. That is entirely within our control–right now.
Would building a dream metro system, not just for Bangalore but for many cities around the world, be a challenge? Of course it would. But that’s not the point. Going to the Moon was a challenge. Winning World War II was a challenge. The human race loves challenges. When looking at an idea like this, don’t focus on how hard it is to accomplish. Think about how easy it is. All we have to do is change our idea of what’s worth doing, and then do it. That’s it. That’s how easy it is. If we do manage to dig ourselves out of the climate change hole, it will be as much a miracle of thought and will as one of engineering or technology. Ideas like this are a great place to start.