As increasing congestion – and the resultant increase in peak-period traffic delays and travel time unreliability – grows from being just an annoyance to an insurmountable problem affecting economic performance and threatening environmental sustainability across cities, it’s time that we reimagine urban transportation. In fact, urban transportation systems are currently undergoing a rapid transformation around the world, including in India, with unforeseen public investments and private
sector involvement across passenger and freight modes. Rising concerns regarding environmental and public health impacts of personal vehicle use, increasing application of new and emerging technologies to the transport sector, and some evidence on changing travel preferences and activity patterns of the younger generation have collectively contributed to the unprecedented euphoria around “smart” and “sustainable” urban transportation. In this article, I discuss how the private sector is expected to participate, over the next few years, in developing efficient, effective, and equitable strategies to improve travel conditions, enhance system productivity, and improve quality of urban life.
Engineers, planners, and policymakers are using Indian cities as transportation management laboratories. Although personal vehicle travel continues to be underpriced and subsidized, governments, independently or in partnership with private companies, are investing heavily in intra-urban rail and rapid bus systems, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructures, and zonal real-time multimodal traffic management programs. Private transportation network companies are conducting many new mobility experiments such as on-demand ride-hailing and bicycle-sharing, and the private sector is supporting the implementation of new technologies and systems such as smart parking, dynamic routing, delivery consolidations, coordinated freight pickups and deliveries, integrated transit fare systems, and advanced traveler information systems across cities. Governments at various levels are also considering policies to restrict motorized travel, promote cleaner fuels and means of transportation, and develop land use patterns that reduce vehicular traffic. Organizations are encouraging flexible work hours and extending options to telecommute or carpool to their employees. Most interventions are designed to leverage advancements in information and communications technologies, automation, and the vast volumes of real-time information available from fixed infrastructures, moving vehicles and the traveling public across the transportation network.
While desirable, the extent to which these projects can effectively reduce congestion and fuel consumption, and simultaneously improve travel time reliability and equity in accessibility to opportunities, is unclear. Metro rail systems, for example, cannot relieve traffic congestion but can increase person-throughput across high-demand corridors. Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Ola, as well as existing mobile traffic applications, some argue, can even worsen congestion and increase risk of accidents. And app-based shared travel options are of no use to those without smartphones, bank accounts, and credit cards. Clearly, a magic bullet to improve urban travel conditions doesn’t exist. There needs to be a more systematic, evidence-based, synergistic approach to managing, if not solving, India’s urban transportation problems.
As we consider the next generation of urban transportation in India, the private sector, in my opinion, can play an even more significant role in helping reduce overall travel and promote motorized to non-motorized and solo-driving to shared-riding shifts. Limitless opportunities for innovation exist, particularly to facilitate shared transportation, offer better accessibility to jobs and other services for the transportation-disadvantaged, deliver seamless city- wide multimodal mobility, and provide cleaner means of transportation. While digital technology can and will serve as a critical facilitator, successful service provision requires a comprehensive understanding of activity-travel behaviors and patterns to transform the way people live, work and travel. Government incentives to foster innovation and entrepreneurship, and interest in supporting revolutionary new ideas, are imperative.
Shared travel is not a new concept, but it is certainly more practical now than ever before. Transport planners have always argued that one of the most effective ways to reducing traffic congestion and fuel consumption is to fill up empty personal vehicle seats– in other words, to utilize any unused capacity. In fact, a U.S. government poster during World War II that aimed at promoting gasoline conservation read: “When you ride alone you ride with Hitler.” Making people carpool to work and share rides, however, had proved to be extremely challenging worldwide. The widespread deployment of mobile position sensing devices, advances in computational capabilities, and development of systems that help assess reputation and develop trust within the sharing economy has made real-time ride-matching and hence on-demand ridesharing possible in different forms such as instant peer-to-peer ride sharing and shared ride-hailing. Both arrangements match individuals to share rides with others traveling on a similar route. While the former requires a web-based application with fare processing system only, the latter additionally involves full- or part-time drivers managed by a transportation network company. The private sector has already demonstrated that delivering such services are possible and, in some situations, profitable. Continued research in the areas of precise location identification, more convenient user interface design, more efficient dynamic route matching algorithms, and rider and driver safety can help promote ridesharing further, thereby potentially reducing the demand for personal vehicle ownership, lowering per-capita vehicle kilometers traveled, and alleviating traffic congestion.
The private sector should step up and facilitate ridesharing, particularly peer-to-peer, in a big way. Similarly, companies that facilitate peer-to-peer vehicle-sharing by utilizing parked vehicles, and businesses that deploy shared vehicles which people can rent out as needed for short periods of time can potentially help avoid some trips and reduce per- capita vehicular travel. There is evidence that people use rented vehicles relatively more responsibly than owned vehicles. More shared vehicles also mean lesser parking demand. Ridesharing and vehicle-sharing, along with bicycle-sharing programs can, at least in theory, complement conventional public transport by filling in some spatial and temporal service gaps and providing first and last mile access to and from transit. Bicycle-sharing programs can additionally promote active travel among those that are inclined to healthy living. App-enabled micro-transit services, where bus or van routes and schedules are determined and periodically updated based on assessment of latent demand and subsequent subscription, are also being tested widely and have the potential to promote mode shifts in addition to improving travel conditions for those without personal vehicles. The demand for such services could exist, and delivery of such services could be feasible in certain Indian contexts. Private companies, however, need to consider the many implementation and operational challenges of shared mobility services. For example, we know that vehicle-sharing can only work and have a measurable impact on urban travel when various types of vehicles are available within a short walking distance of many possible origins and destinations across a city, and when one-way rides are allowed.Moreover, ridesharing is most feasible when other mode alternatives exist so that uncertainty and risk of travel are minimized. Additionally, the adoption of bicycle-sharing depends on the availability of bicycle lanes and other traffic
calming mechanisms that promote safety. The challenge is to develop innovative models of shared service delivery in the right places at affordable rates and, simultaneously, generate profits. Governments need to set standards and regulations considering, for example, safety concerns of shared travel and impacts on disadvantaged groups. Governments also need to create physical and policy environments that make provision and use of shared mobility services possible. Governments can even consider partnering with and providing subsidies to private shared transport service providers to address mobility and accessibility needs of disadvantaged populations.
Moving forward, the private sector is expected to play a central role in the new paradigm of Mobility-as-a-Service, or MaaS. The idea is to create a unified digital information platform that enables seamless door-to-door multimodal trip planning using a variety of shared and mass transport options, coordinated transfers, real-time travel information and dynamic route guidance, and integrated payment channels. Since transportation modes in various parts of a linked trip are operated by different service providers, public and private, the system requires a high level of functional and institutional integration. Although this concept has found limited application till date, proponents argue that it could bring positive benefits in terms of reduction in travel cost, personal vehicle use, and emissions. Existence of a network or ecosystem of shared services is the prerequisite. Business models would depend on the willingness to use and pay for such service across various population groups, and across space and time. The private sector will also continue to invest in research and development of advanced vehicle technologies that would result in even greater fuel economy, use of low-carbon fuels, and move towards widespread deployment of electric vehicles. The government has a major role to play. For example, initial government investment in charging stations is critical for the market share of electric vehicles to increase to a level that makes private sector investment in charging infrastructure viable.
Development of innovative urban mobility solutions requires comprehensive travel behavior analysis. The idea is to estimate demand for and impacts of various alternatives, and deliver the right services. It is critical to analyze how people alter travel and activity patterns and location choices in light of new mobility services. Therefore, there is a need for nationwide or regional travel surveys in India that can capture personal and household socio-demographic and travel information along with a GPS-tracked travel diary component. Data on travel behaviors and patterns at the individual and household levels, use of various modes, amounts, and purposes of travel by time of day and day of week, vehicle occupancy, and relationships between demographics and travel decisions will help design effective arrangements to increase mobility for all and reduce environmental impacts. In fact, the private sector can propose new ways of conducting such surveys. The private sector can also make use of increasing volumes of real-time system performance data, or big data in transportation, to assist public agencies across Indian cities in short- and long-term traffic prediction, and traffic incident detection and management. They can also help develop next-generation multimodal route planning applications using archived transportation system data so that the traveling public can make more efficient choices. Projects undertaken as part of new urban development missions in India, particularly the Smart Cities Mission, are expected to generate and make available such data that can be used to provide useful information to both system managers and travelers. Over the next few years, the private sector is also expected to lead research in the area of connected and automated passenger and freight vehicles considering the Indian context, and evaluate the potential of such systems in increasing safety, capacity utilization, and system reliability, while simultaneously reducing environmental footprint of transportation.
Although Indian cities are complex and personal vehicle ownership is growing fast, India’s high urban densities and mixed-use development patterns, the large body of young and relatively low-income urban population, and high rate of smartphone adoption could make the business of cost-effective shared, non-motorized, and mass transportation systems feasible. There is huge potential for the private sector to contribute to our collective efforts at designing urban environments in which people can make efficient location and travel choices that benefit them and others, and also reinforce social equity and environmental justice. The field of urban transportation planning, management, and policy has never been more exciting.
Written by Prof. Sandip Chakrabarti
Prof. Sandip Chakrabarti is a faculty with the Public Systems Group at IIM Ahmedabad.