Years ago, Raimundo Panniker, a brilliant polymath and a philosopher, told me “there is no such thing as a car”. It does not make sense to see it as singular, unique or individual. A car is embedded in the politics of oil, in a huge network of roads, in advertisements of desire and in theories of management. It is private desire embedded in an ecology of public goods and its narratives represent the contradiction.
When one looks at advertisements, one reads the car through individual and family, as mobility and aspiration, as freedom from constraint and as luxury. They present it as a child’s fantasy without acknowledging that that very pollution destroys the respiratory system of a child. A car is a bundle of contradictions between individual requirements and a theory of public goods.
The question is: What does one do when cities are urban sprawls and public transport is difficult, if not non-existent? What intermediate sites does one begin introducing change through? Initial reforms are always problematic, whether it is the odd-even principle or the pollution that is devastating Delhi. One method suggested is modest, and yet might trigger greater changes. It is an undramatic idea called car sharing.
Critics have lampooned carpooling as superficial, claiming that it is like a new model of table manners when you are confronting a food crisis. There is truth in the comment as car sharing does not challenge any of the basic categories of a crisis. A car is still a private vehicle and the crisis of vehicular pollution needs a public solution. But sometimes great reform comes through small changes in narrative, not through immediate changes in plot.
Car sharing is a prelude to a plot. It creates a common sense of neighbourhood, a community beginning to face the immensity of a problem. In a crisis, the elite and the middle class often tend to evade a problem. Here one sees them barring to make adjustments, showing efforts to make changes. It is an educational move where citizens learn to realise that they have to recognise that they are part of the problem before they begin to be part of the solution. The analyst has to recognise that he is also part of the case study. Carpooling should not be seen merely as a technical arrangement for emission cuts but a mix of hard and soft solutions, where conviviality mixes with social change. By becoming aware of the urban crisis, car pooling might become the basis of further creative solutions. Forced to drive together, individuals, each living in mental silos, might begin to think together about the urban situation.
In fact many of them might be reminded of life in small towns, when school buses were few and cars were new. My father’s car, a Morris Minor, carted at least 10 students to school. No one complained and everyone realised it was a wonderful show of neighbourliness. Other parents knew their children were safe. On other days some other parents took out their cars. No one called it carpooling. It was just a way of combining fun and neighbourly efficiency. Children kept an eye on each other and there was a sense of safety and solidarity. No one labelled it as a solution, a strategy and it was all of that — a small town’s way of going to school. Carpooling has shades of that experience, though a trifle more sedates for adults.
Imagine a shared car ride. Apart from the newness of the experience, people would start thinking of new solutions while in cars. As a friend of mine playfully commented, “Anyway people spend a large part of their lives in cars. So why can’t the new car rides be a trigger for a new social thought, for other experiments in problem solving.” Shared car rides become the trigger for new social experiments. People would start economising on other unnecessary trips. In fact once sensitive to the need for these little dramas of problem solving, people might extend them to other domains. A car ride might become the text for new startups in social innovation. It is difficult to imagine that once people have been induced, excited, instigated to think on a problem that car rides will not become contexts for other solutions.
With it will come a realisation that carpooling, whatever little be its efficiencies in terms of emission cuts, is only a kneejerk response, or at best a half-way house as a solution. One will soon realise the need for more connected solutions creating a deeper, richer and more innovative sense of the public, of public problems and what eventually constitutes the making of the public good. Car sharing in its modest way creates new ideas of the social. It is a reminder that technical solutions alone are inadequate. Quick fixes need a sense of communities and carpooling could be the basis of such a transformation.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist
The views expressed are personal