Smart mobility in urban spaces needs to focus on what I call the five ‘S’s—safety, security, stresslessness, sustainability and speed. Smartness often means technology solutions, primarily driven by information technology. In the Indian context, such ‘smartness’ cannot go very far, unless the underlying infrastructure hardware is in place.

Take an aspirational city like Bengaluru. Both the limited road space and the increasing vehicle ownership form an unhealthy combination that affects both speed and sustainability in a significant manner.

Out of the top seven metro cities in India, Bengaluru has the lowest average vehicular speed at 17.2km per hour. Kolkata, with a lower road space, but with more public transport, has an average speed of 19.2km per hour. Talking of increasing public transport, which is a ‘smart’ way to go, Kolkata and Mumbai have high shares of public transport usage, but still woefully inadequate in service levels. Delhi has done well with an extensive metro system, which is increasing, but it appears that those who can ‘afford’ are using their personal vehicles more and, therefore, neither road congestion nor pollution levels have come down.

The ‘smart’ way to go in all urban areas, including not only the metros, but all other growing urban areas, is to focus on urban mobility first around pedestrian movement, and then follow it by eco-friendly public transport.

Today, in most European cities, which have high population levels, there are large swathes of pedestrian-only zones that make walking a pleasure. A twenty-minute walking commute is quite well accepted when giving directions. Many voluntarily even go on up to a thirty-minute walking commute. I am not sure if we can say weather is in their favour, since they do face significantly colder weather than we do.

The future of public transport would be a combination of three- and four-wheeler taxis, buses, and metro. The taxis and buses would increasingly be electric vehicles, to address the issue of sustainability. Metro corridors and, where possible, with surface rail, would provide connectivity to suburban areas. Even if, due to an aspirational population, commutes from suburban areas in a large city were by personal vehicles, parking spaces would need to be developed with appropriate charges for the real estate, and with connectivity to public transport.

Once such infrastructure is in place, IT-based smart solutions can be deployed in a variety of ways to optimize mobility. One, to enable planning of a trip, along the lines of Google’s services or other applications already on offer, there could be suggestions on the best way to reach a destination across different modes. There can be electronic ticketing, including pricing, depending on time of the day, with prior information to the customer. Electronic signage, to direct the user to various public transport access locations, including information on the ‘next’ trips, would be possible. Electronic information on public transport vehicles would provide flexibility to their utilization across routes.

Vision-based systems can identify points of congestion, breakdown or accidents to enable help, appropriate routing and signal timings. Electronic monitoring of vehicles can help control speed, driver and passenger behaviour, enabling better safety and security.

While autonomous vehicles are also being considered in many parts of the world, they may not yet be timely for India.

Smartness would also involve design thinking, towards safety, inclusion and building a character for an urban area. Simple things like appropriately located public seating spaces, green and open areas would help. Design of roads, public transport access points and even metro station platform barriers can go a long way in improving safety.

While often the primary attention of urban mobility is on the passenger, goods and emergency service movement needs far more attention than they currently get. Goods movement can partly be taken care of by restricting their movement during off-peak hours. Emergency service movement needs creation of appropriate spaces and controlling traffic. In both these domains, drones can be an opportunity.

There are many possibilities to make a city smart. The more significant question is how.

Mechanisms have to be created where all this begins from the citizen with a feeling of empowerment. The urban administration needs to become more professional and invest time in listening to the user. All of us need a mindset change where walking, use of public transport and respect for other citizens become the norm.

G. Raghuram is a transport expert and director at Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore.

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