Megacities In Emerging Markets: The Car As The New Living Room

By Elisabeth Ginsberg

It’s Friday night in Moscow. We are with 26-year-old Natalia and her friends, heading towards the car after enjoying a meal at the indie club called Krisis Zhanra. Next stop on the party itinerary, a bar called Sixteen Tons, is a forty-minute drive away. “When we go out, we arrange in advance who’s going to be the driver of the night,” she tells us. “Then that person doesn’t drink but the rest of us can party.” In the car, they take turns DJing and Natalia even pops a bottle of champagne. “Moscow is so big and the good spots are spread out in different areas, so we always end up spending hours in the car. Why not spend that time in a good way?”

Infamous for its massive traffic, it should come as no surprise that Muscovites spend a considerable portion of their lives in cars, driving or simply waiting to get out of a traffic jam. (On average, Moscow drivers spent 127 hours in traffic jams in 2012.) While this is obviously a pain in the neck, it makes sense to try to make a virtue of necessity. Being more than just a means of transportation, the car offers a semi-private space that can be used for unwinding, consuming, and socializing—almost like a new type of living room.

The situation is by no means unique to Moscow. Particularly in cities in countries with developing economies, people spend more and more time in cars. Growth in the supply of public transit doesn’t match up to that of urbanization and disposable income, despite government investments in public transportation and city policies designed to limit driving. Lagos is a good example of this development:

“The size and population of Lagos is expanding much faster than the infrastructure [public transit] can handle. This means that in the future Lagosians will spend even more time on the road in their own cars,” the country manager of the dairy and juice company Fan Milk explained to us when we met him in Lagos.

“So people will need to have more of their needs covered in the car—eating, drinking, communicating, and so forth.”

Lagosians have created a term for their city’s traffic: “go-slow.” Fan Milk, which has been in West Africa since the 1960s, has made good use of this situation. Their innovative sales model uses bicycle vendors to reach the customers where they are most of the time: on the streets. Through its subsidiaries, the company sells over 1.8 million products daily across West Africa.

While the lack of efficient public transit is the obvious explanation for the increase in time spent in cars, there are also other factors. People often prefer to take their own car, even if public transit is available. Across cultures, owning and driving a car is a symbol of empowerment; for many, getting the first car is a major life event. We discuss this with Natalia and her friends while sitting in her car. In Russia, cars used to be allocated centrally (one car per family) and only men could get a driver’s license. “Today, it is more acceptable for women to drive cars, smoke cigarettes, etc. I enjoy both: I love driving fast, listening to music, smoking cigarettes out of the window. I’m actually a better driver than most men,” Natalia proudly tells us.

As the majority of megacities are located in developing countries with rapidly growing middle classes, it is likely that more and more people will experience the thrill of owning their own car as well as the annoyance of wasting hours in traffic. Companies across industries can help make the ride both more enjoyable and less of a waste of time. How to do this in a responsible way is another story, but the underlying need is clear and is only becoming more pressing.


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