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Today at the barbershop i had an epiphany about films. An old Sinhalese film, must have been from the forties, was playing on the small TV. The barber told me that those actors are all probably dead now. The move is called ‘Geetha’, the full credits roll by in the beginning, but there’s a short intro into the whole theme with a scene before that.

The son has just come from England. He sports a little Hitler mustache. He is wearing a dress shirt, pants and tie. The father is dressed in a suit. They are rich people. The mother is absent. She has apparently gone to yet another meeting of a ‘women’s club’. It is a habit of hers to throw away money on these clubs and receive high positions in them. She has taken the good car to go for a function now. The son ridicules his mother’s behavior and questions her objectives. The father says that he has no real say in the matter, since he is a poor man and his wife owns all the money.

Soon the mother returns, bearing a heavy basket of flowers which she was gifted at the event as the chief guest. The son accurately guesses that she must have donated ten thousand rupees to this particular event judging by the weight of the basket, which weighs ten pounds, and the going rate for gifts of flower baskets in return for donations must be a thousand rupees for a pound. This angers his mother. She is dressed in an immaculate sari and sports one of those elaborate 1940s hairstyles that curve around a woman’s face. Further argument is suspended when a worker from their factory comes calling, to tell them that his daughter is getting married. The worker is dressed in an old but neat suit and sarong, his wife wears a carefully preserved white sari.

They have obviously come to ask for financial assistance. but as custom dictates, they don’t say so openly. All pretension is to the effect that the visit is merely to ‘inform’ for propriety’s sake. The father invites them in, the son asks them to sit down. The worker and his wife sit with great hesitation. The father and son then ask some random questions like “where is the groom from?”. The groom is from Kandy and works in the civil service, apparently his salary will be increased once he gets married.

Further conversation is interrupted when the wife loudly calls the husband aside.

“What are these poor people doing sitting in our living room, she asks, “who are they?”

“He is a worker in our factory with his wife”, says the husband.

The wife becomes livid, “poor people have their place and they should not be sitting around becoming pally with the likes of us, have you no shame?”

“well, what do you want me to do?”

“tell them to bloody leave!” she yells, so loudly that the worker and his wife get up, startled, and make as if to go away.

The husband though, plaintively persists “his daughter is getting married, we should give them something, how about five hundred rupees?”

“Are you mad? We already pay them salaries and bonuses. Just give the man five rupees and send him off”.

At this moment, the wife sees some of her acquaintances from her club coming to pay a visit. She becomes alarmed. “Chase those two away at once, what will my friends think of me if they realize the kind of people we welcome into our house!”

The women have come to diplomatically elicit yet another donation, in return for which they will nominate the wife for a post in the parliament. The wife is more than eager to agree. And shells out ten thousand rupees, which must have been a thumping amount at the time, on the spot. Meanwhile the son muses on the fact that his mother loses no time in throwing away ten thousand rupees to become a ‘public servant’ when she can’t stand the sight of the general public inside her own house.

Who in Sri Lanka makes films like this anymore? All i see are movies aping Bollywood. And ‘comedies’ with jokes so lame they need crutches. Some might say that good films with strong messages do get made, but either they get no exposure, or there simply isn’t a market for them.So is something wrong with the Sri Lankan film goer? Have the people no more appetite to ponder ground realities like the class and political differences that underpin the way we live today?

Many Sri Lankans today are sold on cardboard dreams built on TV reality shows and dolled up movie stars. The typical poor Sri Lankan is caught up with the glamor of the rich, and wants to own it as soon as possible. So when he sees the politician roll by in his cavalcade of Range Rovers and matt black BMWs he doesn’t see a vile rogue who owes everything he has to corruption and abuse of power, he sees the epitomization of his own dream. The only way to stop being oppressed is to become the oppressor.

It was late, the roads were empty, and I was cruising with my arm on the window sill. I’m approaching the Dehiwala flyover when I see him. A pair of headlights, their proximity indicating that they belonged to a car of Indian make, appears behind me and to the left. I am now really close to the flyover and am reaching the barricade separating it from the rest of the road.

Suddenly, the guy behind cuts through in front of me, in what is an insane maneuver, and just manages to edge past in between me and the barricades without causing an accident. He then zooms triumphantly off up the flyover, only to come up short at the top behind an old, rickety lorry (which shouldn’t have been there in the first place).

According to Scott (2000) road rage is ‘quite unlike other forms of interpersonal violence’ and therefore leaves ‘conflict resolution practitioners’ in a fix. And why is this? Three reasons

1) It involves strangers,

2) It’s related to a driving incident and

3) It hinges upon invasion of personal ‘space’ and thereby is a challenge to identity.

Anyway, after a kilometer or so I roll up next to him, we’re both caught in a patch of traffic as someone makes a right turn into a by lane. My initial instinct is to be superior and above it all. So I ignore him. At first. But then I can’t resist taking one look at this belligerent idiot who almost killed himself and took me with him. So I turn my head and take a look. He is about my age, arrogant looking and is staring me back right in the eye. And upon contact I swear our eyes narrowed, and we coldly assessed each other for a split second, and in this split second we exchanged a mountain of information, most of it not good. The outcome then is predictable.

As soon as the patch of traffic clears up. We’re off. He’s driving what looks like a late model Alto, while i drive a 2005 Zen. He gets a head start because he obviously raced off the first gear. I let him get in front, and use the opportunity to scope out the path ahead. There’s just a slow moving Honda Civic on the road in front of us. The roads are wide in this part of Mt. Lavinia so there’s plenty of room. All I need to do is pass the Civic on the outside, and I have passed my newfound enemy. My car has good acceleration and weighs less than his. So it’s no contest, after a few seconds, I’m ahead of him.

But he doesn’t give up. He’s dogging my tail. This is one determined belligerent idiot. So I go faster. My eyesight narrows into tunnel vision and I only see what is ahead. A yellow crossing materializes, and a pedestrian appears in my line of sight, I slow down slightly and swerve a bit to give him room to walk. Whether he avoids my tail is not my problem. But my tail is still on me. If anything, my slowing down has given him an edge. And now he’s catching up.

I accelerate some more. We are both probably traveling at near optimum speeds. He keeps up, and is now scoping out a way of passing me on the inside. I am calm. My mind is on a different plane, detached, observant and analytical. We are reaching the junction at Templers Road when I see an opportunity ahead.

The man is on a bicycle, and he’s slowly crossing the road on a yellow line. He approaches the middle of the crossing. And I slow down just a bit in order to let him pass in front of me. I know my pursuer can’t see the bicycle but he must know that I slowed down for a reason,  but still he insists on making the mistake of accelerating and trying to pass me on the inside despite this, but now the bicycle is directly in his path, and his only options are either to brake hard or to kill someone, possibly himself.

As I reach the junction, now accelerating again, I don’t hear a crash. And I don’t see my tail anymore. I have won. Despite myself, this makes me feel good. What I did was absolutely stupid. Several people could have died. But the soaring feeling of triumph in my gut is not going away.

But after a while I feel a little shame. And in response my mind becomes analytical again. I suppose that’s why I wrote this post. Because this little drama that went through last night is played out over Sri Lankan roads on a daily basis. Tuk tuks, buses, Marutis, Hondas, Defenders they all do it. Uncles, mallis, thathhaas and Guney aiyyas. We all get a thrill out of the occasional road race. The rage of being wronged is hard to contain. And righteous victory must always be ours.

I was in Japan two months ago and it’s impossible to imagine something like this happening there. The Japanese are immeasurably polite, pedestrians would rather wait five minutes until the ‘don’t walk’ sign turns green rather than violate social protocol. And mind you this is when the street is absolutely empty of cars. Drivers respect pedestrians even more than pedestrians respect drivers, and they will stop abruptly well in advance of almost breaking your knees (which is how lowly pedestrian are treated here).

In Japan they don’t appear to dehumanize other people on the roads. Over here other people are just inanimate objects. As if we are all playing Need For Speed. Because you know, if we die, we can just hit the restart button.

what it should have looked like

So my car wouldn’t start. again. And this time there was no Indi, Roel, Salmaan and Viyan to push it, only a tired old security guard who though he gave his 100 percent failed to ignite my engine, bless him.

Some lazy ass who walked by suggested i call Exide battery service. he gave me the number as well, he was very helpful. Anything to avoid hard labor. Now i’m not too big on these newfangled gimmikery, a man should be able to start his own car without outside help, but i was getting late for an appointment and this was no time for old fashioned machismo.

So i called it and spoke to a lady who took down my details and promised help in ten minutes.

About an hour later a three wheeler with a tiny cab where the back seat should have been and “BATTMOBILE” in big letters written on the side rolls up. The driver gets out and tells me to open the lid. He is no nonsense, no preamble. He fixes some gauge like thing and asks me to start the motor, nothing happens. I do this again twice, he then nods. reaches into the back and pulls out this supermassive battery that looks like it used to power a Nazi armored tank before going into retirement.

He lifts it up and sets it down in one smooth motion. fixes two cruel looking pincers to the nodes of my battery, and asks me to turn the key. Black Dragon (that’s the tentative name of my Maruti Zen) fires up right away. Battman gives a satisfied smirk. Tells me i better replace my battery soon.

He makes as if to get into his awesome vehicle and move off into the night. I’m like, hold on, i haven’t paid you yet. He gives a bashful grin and says no charge mister, but you can give me something if you like. I slip him a little something and he nods in thanks. Starts up the Battmobile with a rumble and disappears into the dark. Who was that man?

I think Exide is onto something here. You spread the word only to people who are most likely to buy your product in the near future, and you develop a great relationship with nearly all of them in the process, before they even think of buying. This is what industry insiders call really cool marketing.

A Beijing subway map

Traffic in Colombo is not pleasant. Leaving home at the wrong time can ruin your whole day. Do this for a while, and soon cursing behind the wheel everyday will likely give you grey hairs and a prematurely weak heart.

Blame The Cars

Tax reform, low interest rates and possibly increasing middle class incomes have multiplied vehicle imports faster than road networks can expand. The UDA has been trying to keep up, they’ve extended Marine Drive to Colpetty, opened up Bullers Road and have generally tried to fix things like perennially bad maintenance. Traffic lights and police presence has been increased, but still cars pile up faster than hungry people at a dansala.

I drive down Galle Rd often and it used to be that i’d invariably try to take Marine Drive to avoid evening traffic, but now i steer clear because of the massive wait at the turn off back into Galle rd. Similar situations are playing out along all of the major exit-entryways to the city. Baseline Road, Negombo Road and Kandy Road are veritable nightmares in rush hour. Let’s not even go near Rajagiriya, literally, you want to stay away from there when other people exit their offices. There are just too many. freakin. cars bob.

Don’t Blame The Cars

But blaming the vehicles is moot. There are good reasons why people feel they need cars. People are worried about getting to work on time, they also need to get there smelling good. So will drive if they can afford it, or paradoxically take a tuk tuk if they cant. As traffic increases, drivers get more and more frustrated and will wish for alternative ways to travel. But aside from moving closer to the city (an unthinkably expensive option for most) they have no other alternatives. This is absurd, but that’s just the way things stand now.

Public transport is unreliable, too congested, and completely ruins the attire of your average executive, discouraging most of them from opting for it. The lack of a cheap taxi network is also a problem. Tuk tuks, even metre tuks, are overpriced.

Building Our Way Out

The Defense Ministry/UDA (whats up with that? no one even talks about it anymore) has followed a strategy to expand capacity and increase efficiency by improving roads, building flyovers and increasing police presence. But it has only worked so well. In fact, capacity is so limited that everyone breaks road rules when the cops aren’t looking to get ahead. Our roads are ganglands, whatever you can get way with is legal, Gehan has a good post on driving and its malcontents.

The situation poses some interesting problems for urban policymakers. Things have come to a point where even the bureaucracy must realise that there is no building our way out of this, at least not in the conventional add-em-as-you-go fashion.

Trains have worked remarkably well in other cities. But Colombo’s existing train lines only circle the city and do not venture inside, making them just feed lines to hubs just outside the city centre and that too only from the North and along the coast.

The bus networks are mass market. And probably already transport double the amount of people travelling in cars. The recently launched Executive Bus service has failed to spark much interest. Again due to unreliability, irregularity, coverage gaps arising from the fact that they only traverse a single main route, and did I mention unreliability, the bus service can only do so much too. The much touted ferry service is also floating about aimlessly if you’ll excuse the bad pun.

Innovative work policies can help. Firms can rethink employment policy and offer the option of working from home. Or offer flexible hours to enable employees to beat traffic to and from work, like my new workplace. Individuals can also avoid traffic if they decide to leave early because not everyone will do it especially here where being fashionably late starts half an hour after an appointment.

Bring The Commonwealth Games to Colombo

A subway system would be ideal, as indi says, a good subway system can completely eliminate the need for cars. The Delhi Subway system cost somewhere around 700 million USD. Peanuts in comparison to how much we are borrowing for other projects of dubious worth. Maybe the Chinese can help us out with a loan and even expertise, the Beijing subway lines are superb; and are an excellent way of getting around in an otherwise smoky, congested city.

Both the Delhi and Beijing lines were conceptualised and hurried up because of the 2010 Commonwealth games and the Olympic Games respectively. The need to show off and provide seamless transport to attendees forced these cities to consider building what is probably the most efficient urban transport mechanism invented by man.

Colombo is the centre of the country still, the heart that pumps out all the country’s logistics. The main arteries of it are now getting clogged. If hosting big international games can bring a city a subway then Hambantota might end up getting one. But Hambantota doesn’t need a subway system, Colombo does. So bring the Commonwealth Games to Colombo, and build something useful to the economy in the process.

This is a policymaker standing on a minefield

But the relationship between expanding capacity and reduced traffic is not always direct. This study done by USCB shows that when capacity expands and some traffic is diverted through other channels, latent demand clogs up the free space. Meaning when more drivers take buses, people who took buses because the traffic was too much will start driving.

Colombo being a very decentralized city doesn’t help. Public transport is simply not capable of reaching all the crannies where people need to go, most of the inroads can’t accommodate buses anyway. I work on Thimbirigasyaya Road and it’s barely wide enough for two cars. There is an expansion program going on but it had been in the works for over two years now, no results.

There is also mispriced congestion. Drivers don’t pay for the time loss they cause to others, and so will make inefficient decisions on when and how to travel. These ‘negative externalities’ are the social cost of congestion, and can result in little or no reduction in traffic.

Expansion in trains might divert commuters away from the bus service, because the latter is crap, while not affecting the amount of cars on the road. Deteriorating the bus service even further while causing no improvement to traffic.

So wuttudoo? Maybe an expansion in overall capacity, trains, roads and buses, thereby taking levels of capacity beyond ‘latent demand’. Together with innovative alternatives like carpools, office vans and flexi hours and urban planning focusing on centralized corporate space, these policies might help. What is really needed before anything else is a comprehensive study of the city by specialists (its much more complicated than it looks) followed by bottom up policy making to prevent us from arbitrarily building roads that lead to nowhere worth going slowly.

But all this takes intelligent policy making followed by quick implementation. And so far the Defense Ministry/UDA has only been implementing like mad, where the intelligent planning?

Milinda Moragoda has set out a manifesto here, in it he gives some vague outlines of a transport policy that are a bit vague. Aside form promising clean pavements it promises circular bus routes but fails to describe how they will be different from existing bus routes, which cover the city’s main highways pretty well.

Dad next to a mini cooper, NOT what we ended up buying

Well, it’s new to me, but it has had at least two previous owners and one leasing company has cast its ominous shadow over the documents. But somehow saying ‘i recently bought a used car’ doesn’t quite bring it, you know?

In the process, me and my dad (who helped) did a reasonable amount of price gauging, which generally meant studying classifieds, calling around and making test offers; quality checking: going around and testing vehicles out and judging them against price quotations, looking screwy eyed at sellers trying to make out hidden agendas; research: grilling mechanics, friends, bystanders and paranoid neighbors and anyone else who we suspected of having a modicum of knowledge about our target model.

Like any used car market, Sri Lanka’s has no shortage of lemons. It’s a jungle out there and information is highly asymmetric, which is a fancy way of saying that the sellers have all the knowledge. For that reason we steered clear of car salesmen. They have a reputation for ‘dressing up’ and palming off vehicles that will end up giving a lot of trouble, at exorbitant prices as well. Not all car salesmen are bad salesmen, but they are victims of the same same market law that plague all informationally assymetric markets; “The bad drives out the good”.

Admittedly worries about quality decrease as the car reduces in age. The newer the car is and the better the ownership record, the easier it is to trust what the seller is telling you.

Buying decisions center around two areas when it comes to cars. On the stochastic side, or the part of the decision that considers the actual car itself, things like brand, country of origin, parts availability, options (such as AC, power steering etc), durability, fuel consumption and commonness play a big role. Toyotas are top dog and can boast of being almost liquid assets, bought dear but sold quickly and often at a profit. Nissan and other Japanese brands come next with some exceptions like Subaru. Indian cars are slowly gaining recognition as well. I hope so, I ended up buying one.

But the biggest worrier for any buyer in the used car market is level of maintenance. The quality of the car ultimately depends on how it has been used, whether it has been serviced on time and if it has been ‘hacked’ or not. Buyers analyze potential buys by looking at mileage, wear and tear and general drive quality. But who are we kidding? These are used cars. Damages can easily be covered up so generally a buyer will take an experienced mechanic to check the car out and give the go ahead.

Economists have been all over the used car market. Like the insurance market, it’s a classic example of information asymmetry. An economist called George Akerlof said that since used cars enter the market after years of wear and tear due to many factors like the style of driving and general maintenance, buyers can’t conclude if the car is of superior quality or not. The safest bet then is to assume that car is of average quality, and pay an average price for it.

This means that sellers of used cars in top condition will not want to sell it because they won’t get the price they want. So top quality cars will be removed, reducing the average quality of the used cars in the market, causing buyers to drive prices down even further. This vicious cycle is described by Gresham’s law; which states that ‘the bad drives out the good’ (I’d like to apply this to our country’s political sphere and see what comes up sometime).

This uncertainty of quality levels leads to a long drawn out buying process, lasting sometimes for weeks. A buyer will ‘stalk’ the market until he is satisfied that he has obtained a reasonable amount of information to proceed with a purchase. Only then will he proceed to make serious offers.

Interestingly, buyers and sellers are interchangeable. Today’s buyer is tomorrow’s seller. So experienced buyers and sellers will both think they know how the other’s mind will work, and will try to second guess their moves. Sellers will generally price the vehicle at a premium and will then reduce reluctantly based on the offers that come in.

Sellers might be usually painted the bad guys here, but really everyone involved is doing some skullduggery of the other. If you’re a noob looking to buy his first car, take my advice and look beyond the shiny paint and body kit and consult someone with experience.

Car afficionado’s have been talking non stop about this brand new baba. made out of cloth they say and maaaan, i just Love the way the hood operates. it winks, changes shape from a muscly brute to a sleek lean mean driving machine (probably at the press of a button..) BMW sure came up with a shaker.

But it remains to be seen how long its gonna take for it to actually hit production. my feelings is its gonna be a bit too delicate for most environments and myt cost a fortune to maintain. its a concept of a concept and will revolutionalize car design in the future, but the technology is way too expensive for commercial production as yet.

as for safety measures, performance specs etc nothing is for certain. And we will have to wait for some years yet to see exactly what kind of monster BMW will bury beneath that sexy hood. But for now we have this cool video to watch coutesy the German carmaker. Do check it out.

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