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The road to sustainable mobility

The road to sustainable mobility

By Madhav Pai

The turn of the century saw a slew of urban mobility reforms emerge across the world. Cities that once focused on building transport infrastructure for cars gradually began making a push for walking, cycling and public transport, challenging the very norms of private car ownership and the image of ‘success’ it entails.

Urban transportation reforms: A global worldview

With citizen initiatives spurring cities into action, projects such as ‘congestion pricing’ in London, ‘pedestrianisation’ of Times Square in New York and ‘no car zones’ in Germany have gained popularity. And these initiatives are in no way limited to the western world. While the Paris mayor aims to cut Paris’ car space by 50% and ultimately rid Central Paris of non-residents’ cars altogether, Bogota (under mayor Penalosa, in 1999) implemented 200 miles of bicycle tracks and installed a large public space program, Mexico City and Istanbul pedestrianised historic precincts and several cities have successfully implemented public bicycle sharing systems elsewhere in other parts of the world.

Many of us now use carpool services through Uber, Ola and other taxi aggregators and visionary cities are further seeking cheaper, safer and greener transportation alternatives to combat pollution and meet rising demands.

The urban transport sector is at a critical juncture today as second-generation reforms are taking shape, driven by cutting-edge technology. There is a shift from personal vehicle usage to a future where automation and shared mobility will hold sway. Many of us now use carpool services through Uber, Ola and other taxi aggregators and visionary cities are further seeking cheaper, safer and greener transportation alternatives to combat pollution and meet rising demands. Nascent experiments have already begun across the globe and the idea of a shared, connected, automated electric mobility is no longer a mere pipe dream.

The Indian scenario

India in itself has seen close to 10 billion USD of investment in the last two years alone (5 billion USD in taxi network companies and 5 billion USD in connected, autonomous vehicle technologies). Many big Indian conglomerates are testing the waters with electric vehicle offerings and by partnering with taxi aggregators. But oddly, the first generation reforms barely lapped Indian shores, where in fact they were critically required.

Many big Indian conglomerates are testing the waters with electric vehicle offerings and by partnering with taxi aggregators.

Approximately 50% people walk or cycle in all Indian cities and pollution levels have, over the recent years, reached an alarming high. Indian roads are notoriously unsafe and our country holds the ignominious record in road safety fatalities with the majority of victims being the most vulnerable road users – namely, pedestrians and cyclists. The financial capital of the country – Mumbai – for instance, struggles to create open spaces for its people. We have 1.26 sqm open space per capita in Mumbai and most of this is inaccessible. Road length in Mumbai is 2000 km and assuming the average road’s width is 20 m, we are looking at 40 sq km of public space. Individual car owners, who form just 3% of the population, largely use all of this space.

Several world cities have successfully implemented public bicycle sharing systems | Picture Courtesy: Visual Hunt

If the promise of automated, connected, electric and shared transportation is delivered, we could free 50% or more open space – spaces that we can reserve for walking, cycling and for leisure, unhampered by blaring horns, pollutants, reckless drivers and ceaseless traffic.

Viable options, inclusive solutions

With electric mobility still a fledgeling concept, a point to be considered is that an electric vehicle is a viable investment if driven more than 60 km a day – which is fairly standard for a shared vehicle. Will automated, electric vehicles replace traditional transportation or will they just become a rich man’s toy, remains to be seen.

The challenge now will be to develop new rules and regulations to ensure more liveable cities.

The challenge now will be to develop new rules and regulations to ensure more liveable cities. These new second-generation reforms cannot circumvent or repress the first generation reforms. Rather, they should augment each other’s strengths and together further the idea of creating spaces for people to walk, bicycle and enjoy their city at leisure. The future of mobility has to be one that is truly inclusive, completely accessible and absolutely shared.


The author is the WRI India Ross Centre Director. He has been working closely with cities across India, advancing ideas of sustainable mobility and livable cities for over a decade.
Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt
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