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The Problem With Air-Conditioned Public Transport

There is a sentiment which is unfortunately prevalent in society, which is the attraction towards and desire for air-conditioning. This sentiment is manifested, in, among other things, the sphere of transportation. Many people think that the addition of air-conditioning in public transport is a good thing. The increase in the availability of air-conditioned buses and trains is considered as progress without critical analysis by many people. However, this is a wrong understanding.

We have had non-AC buses and trains with openable windows in Mumbai as well as in other cities, for many decades. In fact, since the beginning, people have travelled in them without any much problem or complaint of heat and without any demand for air-conditioning. However, in recent years some people have not only begun to cherish the idea of having all our public transportation air-conditioned, but they even feel that they are entitled to have it! This thinking is grossly harmful to the environment, and they don’t realize this. The announcements and decisions made by governments, of introducing AC transport, are not good either and are likely intended to fool people, as I will be explaining.

Thane Municipal Transport (TMT) started e-ticketing system in its 30 air conditioned buses, on February 14, 2018. Photo by Praful Gangurde/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

No one had thought of AC just a few years ago, and now people are demanding AC local trains and buses. If this continues, people will demand more and more spaces to be air-conditioned. They will want air-conditioned railway stations and air-conditioned auto-rickshaws. Then they will demand bus-stops, bus depots, sky-walks and local markets to be air-conditioned as well. How far will we go on air-conditioning our spaces to avoid natural air?

As comedian CK Louis pointed out, why, if we belong on Earth, do we want to isolate ourselves from the natural environment of Earth and behave as if we are aliens on Earth?! Why are we behaving as if we are on a planet that is not ours, that is hostile to us? Why do we claim to be uncomfortable in normal weather? By the increasing use of AC, we are polluting and warming the Earth. We need to stop and prevent this and live in harmony with Earth, which is ‘our’ planet. We need to accept the Earth as ours and live sustainably and responsibly. For our so-called desire for comfort, we are contributing to climate change and making the Earth an increasingly uncomfortable place for us.

The justification given by many people for having air-conditioning is to point to heat due to global warming. This is laughable and ridiculous because air-conditioning is itself a contributor to global and local warming. The more ACs are used, that much more it will contribute to warming, because of its mechanism of using coolants and releasing gases. Air-conditioning is one of the most unnatural and environmentally harmful ways of protecting oneself from hot weather.

Recently, AC local trains have been started in Mumbai. Not only that, the authorities claim that in the future all trains will be air-conditioned. This is not a cause for celebration, as many people unfortunately believe. It is a cause for worry. We don’t need AC trains; they isolate us from the journey. Such trains have closed windows. This isolates us from the air, sounds, smells and sights of the outdoors. What contributes to the joy of travelling in trains (in non-peak hours at least) is the sound of the train, the wind blowing, the sound of the train when changing tracks and of other trains running in opposite direction beside your train, and the smell of soil in the rainy season. This all will be lost, along with an important aspect of our heritage, if we become forced to travel in airtight AC coaches. As for the heat, having fans/blowers along with dehumidifiers and open windows is sufficient to have fairly tolerable weather.

The ministry of railways inaugurated AC local train in December 2017, announcing it as a ‘Christmas gift’ for commuters‘. This is ridiculous. Why would people need AC as a gift in winter? It seems that the government is preparing to make people ready for an India which will be much warmer in the future because of development projects which will lead to warming. One of the reasons given to justify making all trains AC is that they will have automatically closing doors, which will prevent accidents and improve safety. This argument is not valid. We indeed need automatically closing doors for safety, but this does not mean that we need AC.

There can be non-AC trains with automatic closing doors, and there should be. Another argument which is put forward is that the trains pass through some areas which have an unpleasant odour because of garbage, and AC trains with sealed windows will prevent the effect of the odour. AC trains do not solve the actual problem. The actual problem must be addressed, and it will be solved when garbage is cleared. But enclosing the trains with AC only enables us to ignore the problem, without solving it. Thus, without any valid reason to justify making all trains AC, the real reason is to fulfil people’s selfish desire of their unreasonable notion of comfort and to allow the government to deteriorate our environment further.

In various cities of India, metro lines are being constructed. This metro construction in Mumbai is causing a lot of problems to people and the environment. Yet the authorities are adamant to continue with the construction without concern for people, environment, roads and heritage. People are being troubled due to noise pollution and worsened traffic and are outraged to see excessive tree-cutting. Yet, to justify its work Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) said in an affidavit filed before the Bombay High Court, that “Metro-3 will give commuters a convenient, comfortable and affordable journey in air-conditioned coaches.” This is how their thinking is; going underground in air-conditioned spaces is the solution to traffic and environmental problems according to them.

While it and other development bodies champion the facility of AC, the same bodies neglect trees. MMRCL is guilty of the murder and removal of hundreds of trees and their failed promise of transplantation. Trees are not to be cared for, according to them, because when we are travelling in AC coaches, why do we need them! Their model of development assumes warming up of the environment. It conceives of AC as a substitution to natural cooling and a solution to the warming. (As for ‘affordable’, experts doubt that the metro fares will be affordable for most people. It will likely be used mainly by upper and upper middle-class people.

Why is the value of trees and forests not understood by these entities? It is because they think that the functions of trees can be fulfilled by man-made inventions and that trees can be replaced by such machines. Trees have value for us and are essential because they lower the temperature, give out oxygen and reduce pollution by filtering the air, among other things. Whenever I enter an area which has abundant trees, I immediately feel a decrease in the pollution level and in temperature. During sunny weather, it is difficult to stand on a street that has no trees. Try doing it for five minutes.

But some people think that these functions can be achieved by human inventions, such as ACs for cooling and air purifiers for protection from polluted air. They think that depending on these is good, and it allows them to continue exploiting natural resources and conduct unsustainable development, which thus deteriorates the environment. If needed they will also install oxygen suppliers inside their buildings and vehicles. But this is obviously unsustainable and costly. It makes them neglect trees and resort to AC, which along with concretization due to the construction of flyovers, metros and dense buildings, leads to urban heat island effect. AC would not be needed if enough trees are maintained along with ensuring eco-friendly surroundings. Buses and trains really don’t need to be air-conditioned.

Perhaps they think that trees have merely a decorative function in cities, a function which could be fulfilled even by artificial trees, and perhaps that is why fake metal trees were spotted to have been planted in Andheri by BMC.

This is also compatible with what some entities are doing in Aarey. Aarey is a vast forest area in Mumbai which the government wants to encroach upon for various projects, including a metro car-shed, which is despite the fact that there are many other suitable locations for it in different parts of Mumbai, which would not involve the cutting of trees which Aarey requires. Yet, it wants to build the car-shed and other buildings in Aarey, to exploit its land for commercial purposes, and they are already illegally doing so. Aarey and Sanjay Gandhi National Park play an important function in reducing pollution and providing oxygen to MMR. But the authorities think that they can survive in their enclosed buildings and transportation using machines like ACs, oxygen supply and air purifiers.

Air-conditioned metro is being constructed also in Navi Mumbai, where it is not even needed, and lakes and mangroves are facing the threat of being encroached for the construction of roads and buildings. Is this not an indication of the plan to deteriorate Navi Mumbai’s natural weather? Mangroves collect carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it, and thus perform the important function of reducing global warming and pollution. But lesser mangroves imply hotter atmosphere. Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Thane Flamingo Sanctuary are also in danger of being disrupted due to the bullet train project.

Though this article has been written in the context of Mumbai Metropolitan Region, it has near universal applicability. Ironically, there are many people who understand or claim to understand the value of trees and yet think of AC as a necessity. These people must understand that if they want to have a clean healthy environment, they will have to restrain from contributing to global warming, one of whose causes is air-conditioning. Global warming adversely effects trees. They cannot support both AC and trees. ACs give out heat, whereas trees make their surroundings cool. ACs increase pollution, whereas trees reduce it.

Journalists are supposed to give unbiased, fair and neutral news reports of events as per journalistic ethics. However, it is disturbing that even some journalists have written biased reports in leading newspapers and websites, which take an anti-environment stance by writing in terms favourable to air-conditioning, i.e. by calling it desirable or progressive! The titles of these reports are also biased. This is a violation of the journalistic value of impartiality. The reason for this, I suppose, is that greed for air-conditioning and obsession with such a lifestyle has blinded people to think in such a way, that they assume what is bad to be good.

In an opinion piece, one journalist even wrote, “All services or almost all services should be converted to air-conditioned with affordable fares in the next few years” and that they “will undoubtedly offer a pleasant commute,” without having concern for the environment. She also wrote that “that should have been the state of affairs anyway!” This is the level of ignorance and indoctrination which people like this article’s author have, because of obsession with a harmful lifestyle, which leads them to make such irresponsible statements. However, it is notable that when a petition was filed in Bombay High Court by an advocate demanding the start of AC buses by BEST, the court accepted BEST’s statement that citizens have no fundamental right to AC buses.

Affordable public transport is deserved by people but this does not include or imply the right to deteriorate the environment by AC transport modes. Instead of demanding buses and trains to be air-conditioned, we should demand a pollution-free environment from the government.

Wind blowing because of moving vehicles has the potential to be utilized, and hence it is being used to generate electricity in a few places, which is good, however, the same wind can also provide ventilation to the vehicle’s occupants through the windows at no cost, yet we are foolishly neglecting it and using air-conditioning with closed windows.

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If the current model of development continues, you can imagine the following to become reality: One day you would be travelling in an AC metro or an AC local train, looking outside through its sealed windows at the polluted, trees-starved city. And you would be ‘thanking the authorities’ for providing you such a ‘good’ facility of air-conditioned coaches, which ‘protect’ you from the polluted air outside and provide you a comfortable cool journey. And perhaps this is what the authorities or government is expecting you to think! But remember what led to such a state of the environment!

Think about why the outside environment deteriorated to such an extent. Lack of trees means less oxygen, warmer atmosphere and more pollution, which would lead to an uncomfortable and unhealthy atmosphere, which would be tried to be compensated by artificial indoor conditions including air-conditioned transport (which only worsens the outdoor conditions), instead of improving and protecting the environment. One day there would be Delhi-level or worse pollution and then thank your authorities for building AC metros by cutting trees. AC is not a boon for which to thank authorities but a conspiracy, conscious or not, to ruin the environment.

Some people think that they can avoid air pollution on roads by travelling in air-conditioned vehicles. This belief leads to increase in the use of private vehicles and also to the demand for AC buses. However, this belief is wrong. Studies have shown that AC vehicles don’t protect the occupants from outside pollution.10 The lack of fresh air is harmful.

It is a common belief among many people of upper middle to upper class that owning a vehicle brings freedom in travelling. This belief is shattered as the number of private vehicles increases and leads to traffic jams. Reliable and affordable public transportation is needed to solve this problem, rather than resorting to flyovers and coastal roads which is being done to cater to the private vehicle lifestyle. At least governments must think not from the narrow, restricted view of rich individuals but from the broad view, which supports prioritizing public transport. But unfortunately, governments in India are doing the wrong thing of neglecting public transportation in favour of building private vehicle-centric infrastructure.

BEST is being neglected, while crores are being spent on Coastal Road. Governments should not think from the fallacious individual-level view of common people but from the broad and scientific view. They should understand the harm caused by ACs and should discourage them. But this is not the case.

On July 20, 2018, the air-conditioning in an AC train stopped working. This led to suffocation because of the lack of ventilation. The temperature increased to 36 degrees Celsius and commuters had to get the train stopped at Andheri station. Some commuters blamed authorities for the failure, but they should understand that it is they themselves who are worthy of blame, for deciding to travel in AC train, and the authorities are worthy of blame too, not for the failure of the AC but for the decision to start AC trains. If the people were travelling in a non-AC train and the electricity went off, the fans would have stopped working and surely it would have caused some discomfort, but it would not have caused something like suffocation! People would not have felt suffocated. Fresh air would have continued to enter the compartments; there would not have been lack of ventilation. When mechanical ventilation can supplement natural ventilation from the windows, we should not have it replace the natural ventilation itself.

After reading this, some people may be tempted to point out to other cities of the world and state how they have air-conditioned transportation modes. Here I make it clear that this is a fallacious argument. Just because something is the case somewhere does not mean that it should be so everywhere. Various cities abroad may have succeeded in protecting their environment and also have AC transportation. Their protection of the environment is appreciable, but this does not justify having air-conditioning. In fact, if they really have succeeded in maintaining a pollution-free and heat-free atmosphere, then they don’t need to resort to AC for cooling. They would have a naturally comfortable atmosphere which would be devoid of urban heat islands.

Unfortunately, some people consider AC as normal. But it is not; it is a luxury. It is such a luxury which is at the cost of the environment. Hence AC in transportation should never be a compulsion or default; it should only be an option, if it is at all provided, and such an option should be higher-priced than the non-AC option, because those who wish to use AC should pay extra for the harm that they are causing. To have sustainable transportation, metros may be a part of the solution but merely making AC metros and trains is not the solution. To ensure connectivity there has to be a good network of buses and/or trams, and importantly, places should be bicycle and pedestrian-friendly. This implies that the environment should be clean and free from urban heat so that it is comfortable and safe for pedestrians and cyclists, for which greenery needs to be maintained and AC must be banished or avoided to prevent urban heat island effect. Such a model based on prioritizing public transport, cyclists and pedestrians saves time and improves health.

Lastly, those who are advocating and fighting for the protection of the environment and sustainable public transport and urban planning must accept the above facts otherwise there would be inconsistency within their thoughts about the ideal situation. If you understand the importance of the environment and wish to achieve a sustainable world and if you care for future generations, then understanding the above is vital.

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