First and foremost, it is critical to recognize that the city has always been intricately intertwined with mobility. The attractiveness of urbanization—access to opportunity, diversity, culture, education—is largely about social mobility, but none of that is possible without physical mobility.
The aspiration of city residents has led to outward expansion. Finding an affordable home with sufficient space, living in a community of like-minded people, and owning a vehicle for the freedom to get around have all become characteristics of the peri-urban lifestyle. The result is an aspirational society that spends at least one hour of the day getting from one place to another.
The urban sprawl starts for similar reasons: overshooting of intended density and then affordability, forcing growing populations to expand cities spatially. This leads to suboptimal density of urban settlements and, in turn, lengthens commute and vehicle kilometers travelled, which in turn leads to de-densification.
Several factors may be responsible for de-densification and resultant expansion. One of the main reasons for this development in American cities is the availability of cheap fuel. The repeated cycle of densification and de-densification continues as cities expand spatially. Irrespective of the country, what is evident is that urban sprawl negatively impacts a city’s sustainable growth.
ADDRESSING URBAN SPRAWL
Cities around the world have used various strategies to address this sprawl. While Portland (Oregon, US) has set a city boundary to stop peri-urban areas mushrooming, other cities have taken a transit-oriented approach to reinstate densities. Curitiba (Brazil) has initiated a land-use programme channelling development around bus rapid transit corridors. Several new cities in China have built metro transit lines before settlements, to encourage transit-oriented growth.
Mobility is a factor of growth and pride for many cities. In India, this is evidenced by the focus on metro rail development, from Bengaluru to Ahmedabad, and embodied by the value of Mumbai’s suburban rail or Delhi’s impressive transit network.
Secondly, it is critical to recognize the evolution of the city resident. A generation that carries mobile phones with a GPS unit and has constant data connectivity has a different reverence for time and changing expectations of the physical environment. The cost attached to the commute is not to the liking of the new-age city resident.
The 2011 Census, conducted before the rise of digitized shared mobility in India, found that 77% of all work trips in urban India are by sustainable mobility modes—bus (16.3%), cycle (18.7%), walk (32.3%), intermediate public transport (4.3%), train (5%), and other modes (1.2%). The remaining 23% is by private vehicles: two-wheelers (18.2%) and cars (3.9%). From a user perspective, this can be simplified into three modes: high effort (cycle, walk); medium effort (drive); low effort (ride).
Urban sprawl has long been associated with an aspiration for ‘the drive’. ‘The drive’, whether self-driven or chauffeured, is a function of person, driver and personal vehicle. Regardless of where you sit, personal vehicles require mental effort and physical space like parking spots for many underutilized hours a day. This under-utilization of the personal vehicle brings a huge cost to both cities and citizens.
The digitization of mobility has brought the concept of ‘a ride’, which can be understood as a function of a seat in a vehicle used by more than one person. In digital economy terms, we call this MaaS, Mobility as a Service.
While traditional transit, including metros, buses and rickshaws are also mobility in the form of a service, they have not yet catered to the aspirations of the hyper-connected user. The key transformation is to make ‘a ride’ into a replacement for the aspiration of ‘a drive’, and integrate the traditional modes as a service to users.
Still dominated by traditional shared mobility India’s timing for growth makes it a promising candidate to leverage digitization to do urban mobility differently. With vehicle ownership expected to rise exponentially there is an urgent need to expand digitization to seamlessly connect para-transit and public transport. The majority of mobility use cases can be served better by MaaS, or Mobility as a Service, than by ownership.
There are signs of a shift globally too. Germans under 25 obtaining a driving licence have declined 28% in a decade, which is a sign of people postponing their decision to buy a car as on-demand mobility services are available. It is estimated that by 2030, car sales in the US will fall almost 12% and this has led to auto manufacturers investing in ride-hailing service providers. Such signs are visible in India too now with manufacturers entering the mobility service space, the launch of ‘One Nation, One Card’, and the strong backing of new economy ventures doing everything from scooter-sharing to last-mile transportation.
Thirdly, it is critical to embrace and accelerate digitization. The idea of ‘Digital India’ holds particular promise for reinventing the city by revolutionizing mobility.
With over one billion cell phone users and 432 million 4G consumers, internet penetration has created fertile ground for further digitizing public services, which can have more impact than mobility.
The telecom playbook should be extended to mobility: active policy-setting, regulatory leadership, technology adoption, and private sector participation, leading to ubiquitous and equitable access to all forms of transportation.
Actors across finance, transport, and logistics come together in real-time while facilitated by a cloud service.
While this coordination is evident, it often goes underrepresented in the measured aspects of the mobility economy, barely accounting for 7.1% of the GDP contribution. In this light, MaaS has significant potential in India. We need to make it possible to get from one place to another, regardless of the mode of transit, with an easy-to-use interface and seamless payment.
With multimodal routing, booking, and billing, MaaS has potential to cater to the current market by creating a roaming ecosystem, wherein the perception of competition between public transport and para-transit is reduced. Various modes of transportation work together to form a single service. Involvement of a variety of transport leads to reduced over-reliance on one mode, while at the same time increases the attractiveness of public transport.
National and state governments should continue working together to further empower the digitization of urban mobility. This will strengthen the role of public transport investments and shape our cities to be fundamentally different from an inevitable expansive sprawl.
Anand Shah is vice-president and part of the leadership team at Ola. He heads The Ola Mobility Institute, a policy research and social innovation unit.