A usable mobility framework must accommodate individual user needs. In addition to travel duration and economics, factors like convenience, safety, and ambience influence a user’s choice of modes and routes. Like arteries in a human body, our cities need main high-density corridors as well as lower density peripheral lines.
Urban mobility architecture must, therefore, effectively and optimally orchestrate the widest heterogeneity of modes possible. Towards this objective, policies and regulations must embrace the vibrant innovation one sees in mobility.
While inducting and encouraging relevant modes in a city, it is useful to take a structured approach, systematically adding capacity to modes that have favourable attributes and discouraging modes that have adverse impact. As in Europe, a lot of intra-city travel in India is over relatively short distances. Yet Indian cities have been indifferent to pavements and bike lanes. Despite population density being high, we have allowed the mushrooming of personal transport (cars and two-wheelers) even as mass transit investments have been slow.
While new app-hailed crowd-sourced van services are being celebrated in western cities, humble home-grown modes like share-autos are left to operate in unregulated fringes in India. We need to imaginatively repopulate a fuller spectrum of transport modes.
After ensuring adequate heterogeneity, cities must address improving connectivity between travel modes. As a journey’s length increases, a commuter typically traverses localities with different characteristics. A suburban resident, for example, commuting to a city centre workplace, travels through lower density suburbs and high-density city centre areas.
Whereas the journey might ideally be accomplished with a suburban train efficiently connecting to a local bus-ride or a short walk, poor planning and neglect of connectivity causes many commuters to use a sub-optimal mode, such as a two-wheeler or worse, a car, for the entire journey, contributing to congestion and enduring unnecessary stress.
Connectivity may be enhanced by investing in physical infrastructure — Singapore, for instance, has convenient integrated transport hubs to allow easy multi-modal connections. Increasingly, connectivity is also fostered through digital infrastructure. London’s Oyster “smart” card is a good example, allowing a commuter to hop from one mode to another with minimal loss of time or effort.
Most urban commutes can be more efficiently executed with a multi-modal journey where each journey segment uses the appropriate mode for the sake of convenience, efficiency and speed. But this requires a healthy variety of modes and seamless connectivity — something that is too often frustrated by poor coordination among various transit authorities (metros, suburban rail, buses, etc.).
When efficient connectivity is fostered, it gives rise to numerous possibilities — combinations of modes and routes — for undertaking each journey. A major source of transformation in urban mobility stems from the large number of travel apps that are inexpensive to use and can work across travel modes.
Traffic delays, cost of travel and schedules can all be factored in selecting a mode or combination of modes. These apps leverage the interplay of three layers of system intelligence. The average smartphone packs a lot of capabilities to filter and sort through choices. Likewise, vehicles (trains, buses, cars, two-wheelers) are increasingly connected and “smart”. Finally, as Indian cities deploy their smart city investments, these sensors add to the pool of information, allowing each commuter to make intelligent choices.
Bringing all of this together, there is a pivotal role for policies and regulations, guided by socially relevant tenets, to underpin the framework.
These policies need to be dynamically adjusted reflecting a fast-changing world. The rapid popularity of Uber in London, for example, was initially welcomed as a convenient and cost-effective solution. Soon, as many commuters, lured by convenience, switched from public transit to Uber, the city saw an equally rapid rise in traffic congestion.
The well-established London taxicab operators cried foul, pointing to Uber’s violations of safety and labour laws. London has since moved quickly to redraft their policy regarding Uber, to effectively balance such issues so that they may continue to embrace innovation while appropriately protecting society.
Well defined societal priorities help ensure that solutions are steered to maximise societal good while offering a consistent roadmap to innovators. Hence the framework must be grounded on objectives such as equity, inclusiveness, economics, space efficiency, environmental impact, and user convenience.
As has been demonstrated in Singapore, users are not prevented from using their personal cars. But they are obliged to pay a full and fair share of societal costs related to road-use, impact on air quality, and allocation of valuable real estate for parking. This results in rendering car use very expensive.
We have chosen to offer a framework rather than solutions, keeping in mind that each city has unique constraints and needs. A framework relying on heterogeneity, connectivity, intelligent systems and tools and policies can steer mobility architectures to be democratic, locally relevant, and dynamic, capable of inducting new innovations even as fundamental societal priorities are protected.
Deployment of aspects of this framework in cities like Singapore and London has proven promising. As India traverses the cusp of urbanisation and gains momentum with economic development, it is imperative that we steer our urban mobility architecture to be an asset and not a liability.
The writer is Chairman, Celeris Technologies.