While SUVs are subjected to GST cess, these are calculated based on the length of the vehicle. The width of the vehicle, which affects the road’s level of service, and bonnet height, which determines road accident fatalities, are ignored.

Key Takeaways

  • From 1990s to 2020s, the width of hatchback models increased by 330mm – “Hatchback models are getting 1 cm wider every year.”
  • SUVs are replacing conventional hatchbacks in India – In 2023, SUVs accounted for about half of the overall passenger vehicle sales.
  • As the width of cars increases rapidly, roads will become narrower to accommodate passing traffic.
  • Cars in India are subject to the same maximum width limit as trucks – 2.6 m. Cars will continue to expand to 2.6 m unless the governments intervene.
  • Motor vehicle tax and GST cess in India do not consider width of the vehicle, which affects the road’s level of service, or bonnet height, which determines road accident fatalities.
  • To decrease the use of SUVs on urban roads, local bodies should implement policy interventions that could potentially discourage people from driving wider cars.

From the early 1990s, India’s demand for automobiles increased because of the country’s growing working population and government policies for infrastructure development, which included a focus on road development in each of the five-year plans. Subsequently, there has been a significant spike in traffic congestion on Indian roads, primarily due to the reduced mode share of public transport and the increased number of private vehicles. While these factors are well-known causes of traffic congestion, this article attempts to draw the reader’s attention to an often overlooked factor: the evolution of car widths and their impact on urban road space.

From 1990 to 2024, the width of cars has steadily increased; the most sold car in the 1990s, the Maruti 800, had a width of 1,405 mm, while the most sold car in 2020, the Maruti Suzuki Swift, has a width of 1,735 mm. That is a 330 mm increase in the width of hatchback models (standard passenger cars) in just 30 years, or, to put it another way, ‘hatchback models are getting 1 cm wider every year’.

This trend has only intensified in recent years; the SUV market in India has been experiencing significant growth in recent years. In 2023, SUVs accounted for about half of the overall passenger vehicle sales (from 42 per cent in 2022 to 48.7 per cent in 2023), which is a 16 per cent increase in SUV sales over the previous year. As the country’s GDP continues to grow, more people will have the purchasing power to afford SUVs.

On the other hand, the width of the carriageway (the portion of roadway constructed for the movement of vehicle traffic) remains unchanged. The carriageway width specification by the Indian Road Congress (in IRC:86-1983 and IRC:86-2018) recommends a width of 3.5m for a single-lane carriageway. In the coming years, it is anticipated that SUVs, which have an average width of about 2,100mm (1.5 times wider than hatchbacks in the 1990s), will take over the market for hatchbacks. As a result of wider SUVs replacing traditional hatchbacks, roads will become narrower to accommodate passing traffic.

The IRC’s Guideline for Capacity of Urban Roads in Plain Areas (IRC:106-1990) recommends urban roads have a Level of Service C (LOS C), which means that the average travel speed should be about 50 per cent of the average free-flow speed. This will enhance the steady flow of traffic on urban roads with minimal obstruction. But as cars get wider and wider, the level of service on urban roads will be reduced to LOS D or LOS E, corresponding to extremely poor comfort and convenience.

The maximum width of a vehicle under category M1 (passenger vehicle comprising not more than eight seats in addition to the driver’s seat) is 2.6 metres, as per the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989, rule 93. Thus, cars in India are subject to the same maximum width limit as buses and trucks. Unless the width limit for cars is reviewed and governments impose higher charges for using more space by means of motor vehicle taxes and parking policies, cars will continue to expand to reach the capping of 2.6 m.

In February, Paris residents voted in favour of increasing the parking fees for SUVs weighing 1.6 tonnes and more to €18 an hour. Paris is the first major European city to tackle the trend of the SUV squeeze by endorsing higher parking charges.

In India, while SUVs are subjected to GST cess, these are calculated based on the length of the vehicle. The width of the vehicle, which affects the road’s level of service, and bonnet height, which determines road accident fatalities, are ignored. The motor vehicle tax is currently calculated using a variety of factors, including engine capacity, seating capacity, unladen weight, laden weight, and vehicle cost. The factors pertaining to the width and bonnet height of a vehicle should be considered in both GST cess and motor vehicle tax, so that an SUV that occupies more space within the roads and which poses a greater threat to pedestrians shall be imposed with higher taxes.

To decrease the use of SUVs on urban roads, local bodies should implement policy interventions that could potentially discourage people from driving wider cars, such as parking regulations, special levies for entering urban streets, congestion charges, etc. Today, when our streets are not well equipped to serve as public gathering and socialising spaces, the SUV squeeze will emerge as a major issue, transforming our city spaces into a war zone for pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles.


(This article is first published on Deccan Herald)

(Nikhil Ali is Research Associate, Centre for Public Policy Research.)

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

Nikhil Ali is an Associate, Research at the Centre for Public Policy Research. He completed his graduation in Civil Engineering from Sree Narayana College of Engineering and is a seasoned Civil Engineer with working experience at Tata Realty and Infrastructure Ltd. With a passion for urban planning, he acquired his master's degree in Urban Planning from Hindustan Institute of Technology and Science, Chennai. His expertise lies in Urban Mobility, land use planning/analysis, and water-sensitive planning.

Nikhil Ali
Nikhil Ali
Nikhil Ali is an Associate, Research at the Centre for Public Policy Research. He completed his graduation in Civil Engineering from Sree Narayana College of Engineering and is a seasoned Civil Engineer with working experience at Tata Realty and Infrastructure Ltd. With a passion for urban planning, he acquired his master's degree in Urban Planning from Hindustan Institute of Technology and Science, Chennai. His expertise lies in Urban Mobility, land use planning/analysis, and water-sensitive planning.

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