What is luxury? Depending on the observer, occasion and circumstances, luxury could be something as simple as having a steaming hot cup of coffee while seeing a downpour, to being able to afford a 10,000 rial watch. What after all is your concept of luxury? To me luxury has meant different things through my years. At this particular point in time I would lean to according the title of luxury to personal space. Space? Have I lost it completely, you may well ask? Allow me to elaborate.
Take our world population – it has breached the seven billion mark and if you come from India or China you are not unique – you are one in a billion and something. Both of these countries have large populations but India has a small difference, unlike China’s people who will age on the average as the years pass due to their one-child policy, India has one of the largest young populations around. In some ways it is like the scene in the GCC, except for the numbers involved. This young population is educated and networked and will aspire for and get all the better things of life. And one of the must haves is a car, another is an apartment or house.
The pressure on the resources that society provides is already tangible. Roads that we put up a decade ago are crowded and have to expand. The number of cars on a road go up faster than the ability to match with tarmac and the time has never been better to project the importance of public transport.
I make a point of using public transport wherever possible. In Europe it is a cinch – trams, buses and trains are in plenty. In India, the transport is present, but lacks investment, quality and is usually overcrowded and late. In America, some cities have decent transport, others prefer you using cars. And in most of Asia, public transport does fill the need far better than the car does.
However, in most places the ability of Joe Public to afford to buy a car has never been better. Car sales are increasing in places where public transport exists, even where excellent public transport exists. That is a huge problem for town planners. Now they have to spend on keeping the trains and buses the best while putting in more tarmac for car usage.
Take a city like Mumbai. Its backbone is the local train system, just like London’s metro is to the British capital. In both cases the bus service is also critical, in effect another backbone. But the difference now is that while London is making an effort to control its car population with measures like the congestion tax, Mumbai has become a free-for-all in terms of car purchase. All that is needed is the will to show off and the ability to tender a down-payment. Most Indian cities are facing the dilemma of this race between improving public transport with rampant consumerism.
Hence at each stage personal space is at a premium. You fight for space on the roads, you push for your territory on buses and trains, you pay a premium for legroom and shoulder room in business and first class in airlines. Even your houses are graded by how many rooms, how much carpet area and how large a garden you can put in place.
Everything else is a luxury that we will find we can drop by the wayside. But space, the space to stretch, the space to accelerate a car without having to brake, the space to sleep comfortably on a plane – all this will be a luxury that gets ever more effervescent.
Of course that means that personal transport will be a luxury that is much in demand. However good and efficient public transport gets, travellers will tire of sharing their space with others. What’s that going to do for the future? Who knows?