Trend of automobile ownership

  • Whether automobiles are purchased for necessity or flaunting, it suggests that the purchasing power of Nepalis is increasing

Feb 11, 2018-

Goods once cherished as luxuries are increasingly becoming necessities through their mass adoption. Cell phones, Wi-Fi networks, high-definition television sets, automobiles, and laptops are now considered the benchmark of decent living rather than signs of a lavish life. 

Before the road linking Kathmandu to the Indian border was built in 1956, cars used to be carried by hand. The first car was introduced in the time of King Surendra (1881-1911) more than a hundred years ago. Catering mainly to the Rana or Shah families, cars brought from India would be driven up to Bhimphdi and then carried by a group of porters along the Bhimphedi-Chitlang-Thankot route. 

Automobiles were once regarded as quintessentially luxurious goods in Nepal. Post 1950s, even with increased usage, automobiles were hardly a mass-adopted item for several decades. Now, as they are consumed by a sizable section of the population, the notion of luxury in regards to vehicles has shifted from generic ownership to ownership of particularly expensive automobiles. 

Any street in Kathmandu Valley, however forsaken or dilapidated, now boasts a variety of vehicles. This is also a commonplace occurrence in many urban centres of the country such as Pokhara, Biratnagar, Butwal, Birgung, and Dhangadhi. The sheer number of automobiles speaks of the pace of urbanisation and the evolving taste of Nepali consumers. Even though vehicle ownership is substantial in terms of two wheelers (motorcycles and scooters), Nepalis across the country are now riding in, if not owning,  cars, SUVs, tractors, and buses. 

Growing number

The Department of Transport Management in Minbhavan, Kathmandu  sorts vehicles into various categories such as bus; car, jeep (SUVs) and van; and motorcycle. The annual record has been maintained since fiscal year (FY) 1989/1990. The focus on this essay would be on two categories of vehicles: cars, vans and jeep as luxurious vehicles that cost millions of rupees, and then motorcycles, that also includes scooters and mopeds, that are relatively cheaper than cars and jeeps. 

If we calculate the number of motorcycles and cars existing at different times based on in their average lifespan after registration, we can come up with numbers on the prevalence of different kinds of automobiles on the streets. It is reasonable to give cars an average lifespan of 20 years, while motorcycles have an average lifespan of 10 years after registration. 

Not a lot of Nepalis use cars. The category car, jeep, van shows that 21,292 cars were registered in FY 2016/17. 150,303 cars were registered in the past 15 years. The population of Nepal, according to Central Bureau of Statistics, was projected to be 28.7 million for 2016/2017 as benchmarked by its 2011 census. That translates into every six per 1,000 people being car owners. This is quite a jump compared to the statistics in 1989/90, where there were 21,350 cars and the population was approximately 18.5 million, which translates as one car per 1,000 people.

The most glaring trend is that of two wheelers, mostly motorcycles and scooters but also mopeds. In FY 1990/91, only 5,697 two-wheelers were registered. The number swelled to 12,957 within five years in FY 1995/1996, and then surged to 29,291 in FY 2000/2001. Since the fiscal year 2009/10, this category has witnessed over 100,000 annual registrations. There are already more than 2.19 million registrations in the category of motorcycles at present. Assuming a motorcycle on average has a life span of 10 years, there are currently 1.76 million motorcycles in Nepal. This means that out of 1,000 individuals, 66 are motorcycle owners.  In 1989/90, 34,556 were registered in total, so 2 people for every 1,000 were motorcycle owners. 

Why purchase automobiles?

Does the ownership of commodities such as automobiles, correlate to prosperity? This question is hardly a novel one. A typical individual can have many conflicting motivations to purchase commodities such as automobiles to address genuine everyday needs. They might wish to flaunt their possessions, yet they may also wish to save time to commute to various places. Or perhaps they want to perform many responsibilities without any of the hassles attendant to travelling in a public buses. But bereft of a straightforward answer, we have to concede that increasing purchasing power generally implies increasing prosperity. Assuming that an increase in wealth commands better amenities and higher standards of living, higher purchasing power demonstrated in automobiles can be a rough gauge of national prosperity. But it could be reasonably assumed that when automobiles are more a necessity aligned with urban lifestyle than an extraneous purchase of surplus savings, no consistent inference can be drawn from increased access of automobiles. 

Rather than framing ownership of a vehicle in a luxury versus necessity dichotomy, it would be better to situate the issue in terms of how much it has evolved as the need of urbanites in burgeoning urban sprawls across the country.  Having a vehicle solves several problems. Obviously, the expensive automobile models in town that try to evoke the jealousy of peers are blatant models of “conspicuous consumption,” a phrase coined by Norwegian economist Thorstein Veblan (1857-1917).

Automobile owners in Kathmandu regularly brave traffic congestion. The main culprits of congestion here, even with relatively low ownership of vehicles compared to cities around the world, are the architects of urban planning. The congestion problem underscores not just high traffic volume but also high density, given the paltry width of roads that cause bottlenecks. Traffic congestion can also be compounded by the failure of city authorities to find space for street markets, squatters occupying space, a remarkable number of stray dogs, cows, and other animals. Many houses in urban areas in Nepal have to take parking space for vehicles into consideration while building their houses. Government entities must implement urban planning policies. At the very least, they must leave aside enough space for roads, drainage, water pipes, electricity poles, vehicle parking, bus stops, and other important amenities.

- Neupane has a Bachelor’s in Finance and Mathematics from Southeastern Louisiana University, United States

Published: 11-02-2018 08:11

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