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Cracking The Urban Mobility Code

Smart mobility solutions can make our cities economically productive, less polluting and wasteful of resources, socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and above all, liveable

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In 1916, American architect Hugh Ferriss in his book, ‘The Metropolis of Tomorrow’, wrote: “The avenues and streets of a city are nothing less than its arteries and veins”. When the streets and cities are being choked and congested, the city is soon going to be “sick” and “dead”.
Almost a century after him, “choking city streets” have become global challenge for the cities and urban planners and city administrations are grappling with finding new ways to put the cities on the move.

Talking about Indian cities, four of the world’s 10 most congested cities are in India. Outdoor air pollution in Indian cities is now among the worst and 14 Indian cities figure on the list of world’s 30 most polluted cities. Traffic speed in many cities average less than 20 kilometres per hour. Peak-period traffic speeds are just 5 kilometres per hour on some metro roadways and India alone accounts for 11 per cent of global road-injury and deaths. The numbers are alarming.
According to Amitabh Kant, CEO, Niti Aayog, challenge of urbanization in India has just begun.

“Mobility is going to be the biggest challenge for our cities. By 2031 India’s urban population will be close to 600 million, which threatens to further choke out city roads. If we are not planning in advance, we are heading towards disaster. India requires compact cities backed by good network of roads and robust public transport backed by advanced technology,” Kant said.

Over the last 20 years, India has invested significantly in its transport infrastructure, with large projects such as the Golden Quadrilateral and the North–South and East–West corridors connecting major cities together. Also there is an increased focus on metro rail project in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

However it is just a fraction of what India will require in next 15-20 years. According to a study by McKinsey Global Institute, “in order to cope up with the huge influx of migrating population in the urban pockets, India requires to invest in overall urban infrastructure worth Rs.53.1 trillion by 2030 and that will involve creating 2.5 billion square metres of paved road and 7,400 kilometres of metros and subways, which is over 10 folds of the capacity built over the last decade”.

Mobility Challenges


The task is both expensive and challenging and needs funding and policy reforms. Planning and implementing urban transport infrastructure projects is tough and complex in urban areas where land acquisition is tricky business. No wonder progress of road projects is painfully slow and it requires massive overhaul. However it is also a wake-up call that if we do not start planning in advance, increasing urbanization, unplanned development and lack of investment in public transport will make our cities dysfunctional. Anyone living in Delhi, Bangalore or Chennai ispretty familiar with the traffic situation, which worsens during monsoon, putting cities on standstill. 
Also there is a human and economic cost to it. Lack of sustainable mobility planning results in increased road and parking costs, higher transportation costs, longer commute time, traffic congestion, road casualties, reduced productivity and environmental damages like air pollution and smog. 
“There is direct correlation between connectivity and GDP of the city. A city, which is conscious of connectivity and mobility, stays ahead of others and is able to attract economic activities and jobs. Cities that are relevant today will not be necessarily so in future. That is the reason it is important for the country like India to invest in public transport if it wants to be prepared for the massive burden of urbanization in the future,” said Pan Yee Ean, Director General, Investment Operations, of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Promoting Public Transport

Even when India has substantially invested in road infrastructure, the public transportation remained ignored. As per the 2011 census, the share of buses among all vehicles in India is restricted to just 1.1 per cent. Barring Delhi, where metro-rail has worked very well, many metros and a large number of smaller cities are still struggling to get basic reliable traditional public transport, forcing citizens to opt for private cars, which is set to increase by 6 folds by 2030.
Government run transport corporations are uncomfortable, polluted and embarrassingly slow to harness technologies like automatic vehicle location, global positioning systems (GPS) and mobile apps to serve the passenger.

Investment in modern intelligent transport systems would make a big difference to such users, encouraging more people to take up public transport. Success of private cab services like Uber and Ola is an example that provided with reliable alternative people are ready for the shift. If Uber and Ola are using the technology there is no reason why it cannot be replicated in Public transport system, which will encourage more people to share car and opt for public transport.

As Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu aptly said: “Change of mindset and adoption of shared transport is a critical transformative mobility solution”.

Recent Initiatives

According to Amitabh Kant, “India needs advance next generation mobility solutions and the government is working out to develop a clear roadmap in this direction”. 
Last month the Centre has formulated ‘National Transit Oriented Development Policy (TOD), which promote living close to mass public transport corridors like metro, and bus rapid transit (BRT).

Discussing the move with states and Union Territories, Minister of Urban Development Venkaiah Naidu said “TOD is a viable solution to urban challenges like “haphazard growth, mobility problems, congestion due to rising private vehicles and rising pollution level”.

So far TOD policy is being taken up in Ahmedabad, Delhi, Naya Raipur, Nagpur and Navi Mumbai and other cities will follow the suit.

With schemes like JNNURM in the past and the Smart Cities Mission there is a fresh influx on creating reliable public transport system like metro and monorail. In India over 300 km of metro lines are being operational in seven cities. Another 600 km of metro line projects are under construction in 12 cities and over 500 km projects are under consideration. BRTS projects in 12 cities are under different stages of construction and eight more cities are set to take up BRT projects.

According to the officials from Ministry of Urban Development, “there is a target to build 1,300 km bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors with dedicated fast lanes for buses, set up 500 new bus depots and promote use of electric and hybrid vehicles under Green Transport Scheme”.

Also Mass Rail Transit System of 380 km length is being taken up in Delhi. All these project encompasses an investment worth Rs.80,000 crore and once implemented, will benefit 22 crore urban population.

“To address its mobility issues, India’s private and public transport sector should be oriented to electric vehicles, sans oil,” Minister of Heavy Industries Anant Geete said.

Another significant move is promotion of non-motorised transport infrastructure in cities. Urban Development Ministry has launched Green Urban Mobility Scheme under which it will build 8,000 km of pavements, cycle tracks in 106 cities in the next five years to promote walking and cycling and to reduce carbon footprint in urban areas. The first phase will consider cities over population of 5 lakhs.

MOUD in consultation with Ministry of Road and Transport and Ministry of Finance, is considering a proposal where, states are required to have and implement a parking policy, adopt street vendor regulation norms, policy to prevent encroachments and a mandatory urban transport fund.

The smart city plan also has already incorporated features like smart traffic management, Smart parking, which will further improve the city traffic making it less congested, driven towards public transport system and convenient for the public. Some of the cities like Bhubaneswar, Jaipur, Pune, and, Kochi are already implementing it.

Can Technology Be A Solution?


Technology can dramatically alter the face of the transport sector. India is at an historic inflection point in global transportation, where new technologies and connectivity will drive a paradigm shift in mobility over the next few decades. There is already a shift towardsIntelligent Transport Systems, which can automatically adjust traffic signal timings based on real time traffic information. Cities like Singapore, Barcelona and New York are using data analytics to identify commuter’s behaviour and use it in managing traffic, and altering the travel time of various employees to avoid traffic congestion during peak hours. India can hugely benefit from trends like artificial intelligence, smart automation which are redefining urban mobility.

According to Anand Shah, a transportation expert at the Albright Stonebridge Group “India could be a global leader in new transportation methods similar to when India skipped landlines and computers to embrace mobile phones and technologies”.

Innovation in batteries technology will make electric vehicles a viable alternative in the near future.

Advanced mobility innovators like Hyperloop One are finding Indian market attractive and the company is in initial talks with the Indian government to partially build and operate the vehicle on some routes, which claims to reduce the distance between Delhi to Mumbai to 80 minutes.

Even when digital innovation seems exciting and disruptive, it has its own share of challenges. India needs to look at revamping its existing transport like railways by modernizing and introducing fast trains, enforcing strict road and traffic rules, digitize the buses and right parking and encroachment policy which will reduce the burden on roads to a great extent.

Smart Mobility is not just about managing buses and trains. It is about managing people’s time and making transportation, affordable, reliable and simplified. India requires a comprehensive multi-modal transport planning, which is futuristic is design, sustainable in the long run and economically viable for both the government and public and takes full account of the environment.


This article was published in BW Businessworld issue dated '' with cover story titled 'Cities On the Move'



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