Event Reports

Urban transportation and emerging technologies

Photolabs@ORF
2016
Feb
23

Cities are identified as engines of growth and depend heavily on fast movement of people, goods and information. Even though transport is only a derived demand, transport planning and policy interventions adopted for an area can potentially support or mar sustainable development of its environs. In this context, management and provision of urban transportation services has been and will remain a challenge in coming times. Disruptive technologies, identified as game changers for existing mobility solutions, are making fast inroads in daily functions of both the government and people.

In a roundtable organised by ORF, in association with Uber on February 8, the topic of “Urban Transportation and Disruptive Technologies” was discussed to understand underlying relationships, dimensions and impacts – the two areas can have on each other from planning, technology, policy and safety perspective.

Laying the framework for a discussion on this pertinent topic, Nimisha Pal, a freelance consultant in the area of Traffic and Transport Planning, pointed out the expected areas where disruptive technology could play a role in urban transportation systems and vice versa. The need for travel to transport people and goods in urban environment has continuously manifested itself in evolution of new and faster means of travel. The changes brought out in the urban transportation systems owing to changing mobility needs, can at best be categorised as mixed whereby accessibility levels have generally increased but the problems of increasing costs (to both users and service providers) have stepped up. These problems have created a scenario where the elderly, women, children, differently abled and the poor actually face restrictions on their mobility.

Pal further identified few affable disruptive technology interventions that can become important from the Indian perspective, arising out of requirements of urban mobility, climate change, social equity and safety & security. It may be not so long in future that these technologies could actually change the way we think, order and experience transportation as a user, provider, regulator and manager. It was stressed that a comprehensive and strong planning support is needed to understand how this interaction will develop and thereby control the process for (1) extracting their maximum potential and (2) for minimising the negative outcomes that may arise. She informed that research is presently underway in western world on similar lines and we should develop our understanding from the Indian experiences and local needs.

Sanjay Gupta, professor and Head of the Department of Urban Planning at School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi put forward the Delhi specific views on this topic. He stressed on the fact that transport networks play an important role in overall logistics of meeting the transport demand and supply. The flaws of transport network performance affect efficient throughput and constrains the overall efficiency of logistics to meet perpetual gaps between demand and supply. The intervention of disruptive technology solutions is critical in this regard, whereby public transport services can potentially become more and more personalised.

The question is, should this task be taken up by the Government or should it be left to private sector, where innovations, economy & efficiency will undoubtedly have better chance to flourish. The evidences of disruptive technology interventions on urban mobility choices and consumption are already visible in NCR, specially where present institutional setup have either failed or have been slow in meeting the mobility aspirations of local population and businesses.

With past experiences of abysmal safety and security incidents faced by women, safety in public transport has become one of the major concerns of transport regulators and managers. Disruptive technology interventions for inclusion of safety and security of all users in general and that of women consumers in particular were discussed at some length by Kalpana Viswanath, cofounder Safetypin. She pointed out that cases of sexual harassment in public transport are experienced in many big cities across the globe. The fear of security in transport systems has not deterred women from participating in economic activities but it has certainly influenced travel choices to meet mobility needs. In most of the cases, such choices culminate in use of personal car, an epitome of personal mobility and safety. The use of disruptive technologies in developing safer options such as safer route choices, GPS tracking, etc. are already in public realm, though still at nascent stage. The car pool, taxi sharing, demand aggregator services etc. can prove to be sustainable options from both safety and mobility perspective, provided adequate regulations are mandated. She pointed out that sheer of demand levels may warrant use of modes other than cars in taxi aggregator services being offered now.

The discussion proceeded on to the experiences of Uber, a disruptive technology provider, in identifying required policy and governance issues to be deliberated upon for enabling more conducive environment within existing urban transportation systems. Rachit Ranjan, North India Policy Communication and Government Relations Lead for Uber, pointed out that a disruptive technology service provider like Uber needs to be differentiated from Radio taxi service providers mainly because Uber is an asset aggregator for mobility service and not asset generator like other mobility service provider. Behind the car sharing or car pool service design, a set of grinding logistical and management procedures are laid out to maximise the feeling of convenience and safety during the travel. He, however, highlighted need for integration of disruptive technology in city master plans. Uber services have resulted in substantial savings of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions in cities like San Francisco, Paris and Los Angeles. In India, studies have indicated that loss of productivity in congestion costs billions of rupees to the economy of metropolitan cities. The disruptive technologies services, such as those provided by Uber could help in reducing these economic losses alongside greenhouse gas emissions. He expressed that views and perceptions of regulators are changing towards a more conducive environment for discussion on disruptive technology interventions in India with more and more dialogues held with civil society, think tanks and regulators.

The floor was opened for intervention and a number of queries, suggestions and remarks were shared by the participants. Foremost among them were for use of an alternate term for ‘Disruptive Technology’ and need to look beyond metro cities to other large and medium size cities for such technology interventions. Secondly there was a call for a paradigm shift towards inclusion of not only road based modes but those of rail, water and air based modes as well in design and provision of such technology enabled services. It was pointed out that private sector, no doubt will be more efficient and innovative, and therefore, there was a need for generating healthy competition among a number of service providers to extract best of the technology. The inclusion of economically weaker sections, differently abled and small to medium size cities will be necessary in the ambit of these new technology interventions. Simultaneously, improvements in performance levels of city bus systems and integration of all public transport services through technological interventions can be a key in meeting demand and supply gaps of urban transportation solutions.

In the process important policy level support will be needed to provide a fair playing field under a bigger ambit of social-economic-cultural-environmental-technological framework of the country and the region. The role of transport planning gains importance to understand the occurrence and outcomes of disruptive technology interventions in urban transportation system and establish measures for integrating their physical and operational needs. It was imperative that regulatory measures are put in place to enable mobility of all and not just of middle class able-bodied men.