Keeping an eye on the plotline
Urban transport needs an upgrade. Individuals and businesses seeking to move themselves and/or their goods from Point A to B face what appears to be an acute shortage. Traffic. Fatalities: hundreds of people die every year after falling from Mumbai’s suburban trains. Discomfort. Buses in cities around the country tend to be packed to the gills for much of the day. Peripheral (hence affordable) settlements often have limited public transport service, and long obstacle-course walks at the last mile and intermodal connections reduce the appeal of public transport.
From the system perspective, these gaps tax businesses and employees in terms of lost time, unpredictable trip duration, and increased fuel costs from idling. Urban transport failures distort labour and housing markets and fragment cities. The energy used in urban transport and the emissions it produces also affect energy imports, climate change, public health, and agricultural yields. Sarath Guttikunda and Dinesh Mohan (2014) estimated that the 30 cities that had vehicle registration data available for 2011 (which are not even the biggest cities) accounted for 30-40% of India’s on-road emissions of CO2, health-damaging particulate matter, and ingredients for crop- and health-damaging ozone.
It’s tempting to leap into this fray with all the technology we have, from metros and buses to flyovers and ring roads to smart cards and ride-sharing apps. But this won’t help us achieve the cities we’d like to live in unless we specifically, structurally, institutionally, connect transport technology back to the urban development plotline that we’d like to see.
Current transport investment relies too much on ‘deus ex machina’ interventions that drop in from on high to rescue the heroes and heroines without thinking about where the overall cast of characters has been going and intends to go. We need more upgrades that emerge from the internal logic of urban development aspirations of growth, environmental sustainability and social inclusion.
The political system tends to produce physical ‘deus ex machina’ technologies for visible here-and-now problems: a flyover from Hebbal to Basaveshwara Circle in Bengaluru, a ring road out in the (for now) hinterlands, a metro connecting today’s visible employment hubs with housing developments, more buses to serve key constituencies. These are visible signs of effort and direct contributions to easing obvious congestion and improving perceived connectivity for at least a bit.
The market produces information-based ‘deus ex machina’ responses to the pain of commercially-addressable parts of the city. Shuttl, a door-to-door minibus aggregator in Delhi, facilitated half a million rides in the first six months after its launch in 2015. Its website advertises 20,000 rides a day on 500 buses today. Ola and Uber have driven the cab fleet to be more responsive to those with smartphones and a cab-taking budget than the old days of central dispatch. Pickparcel and Parcelled aggregate courier loads from doorstep to national networks.
Both sets of interventions respond to the here-and-now concerns of residents with a political and/or financial voice. The problem is that the plotline for urban development, and the role that mobility plays in achieving it, run much deeper than the visible congestion and gaps. Identifying interventions for an efficient, inclusive, effective multi-modal transport system that supports the cities we’d like to live in needs information not only about current usage patterns and constraints, but also where the city as a collective endeavour of household, business and policy choices is heading.
This is missing, and it’s hard to see how it can be produced without looking past technology to institutional reform. First, we need to continue actually enacting integrated planning. The Unified Metropolitan Transport Authorities (UMTAs) were and are a good idea. A small number exist on paper, but all are understaffed, underfunded, and even if they had the information flowing in from their own studies, other departments and modelling capacities on staff, could not enforce system-level plans across three levels of government if they tried. This is not a new statement, and the Urban Transport section of the National Transport Development Policy Committee makes a better case for it than I can in this limited space. But it should not be off the priority list just because it continues to be a politically challenging re-formation of urban governance as we know it.
Second, we need to incorporate some of the approaches emerging from the market into public service for broader public goals closer to the full urban plotline. The ride and parcel aggregation apps, for example, are geared toward a demographic who can pay for the rides and courier services. But they could also be very useful for planning mini-bus routes for the less well-off, particularly those who have been relocated in the course of infrastructure or land re-development. While resettlement projects often include investment additional bus routes and buses to keep relocated families connected to their jobs and networks, one of our ongoing research projects finds a gap between the timings and routes people want and those provided, even though the seat-kilometres volume appears to be sufficient.
It may also be worthwhile to consider supporting the aggregation apps on the basis of their externalities for the system beyond the value they provide to riders. Uber and Ola’s ride pooling services put more people in the same amount of road space, saving fuel and cutting emissions. These are still small-scale savings even by firms’ own calculations, but they are developments in an interesting direction.
Third, we need to accelerate the public investment shift away from cement and steel transport technologies and toward less visible interventions that support more efficient use of the existing physical infrastructure, generate information that contributes to understanding usage patterns, and enable transport providers to respond to this flow of information. These kinds of IT systems are often harder to tender, more difficult to show to the public, and take some time to produce even diffuse, non-attributable benefits. They may also be best produced by new companies that don’t survive the tender process as well as the stalwarts. But these are the technologies for linking transport back to the urban plotline.
Jessica Seddon is the founder and managing director of Okapi, a research and consulting group, and a senior fellow at the IIT Madras Centre for Technology and Policy.