When it comes to transportation, India’s cities are synonymous with traffic-choked arteries and packed buses and rail cars. Government efforts, focused on widening highways and building massive interchanges, have done little to ease congestion or to stem the tide of a car culture that’s exploded in the wake of economic growth. Meanwhile, mass transit networks haven’t kept pace with the country’s rising urban population. Problems associated with the sector extend well beyond gridlock, such as poor air quality, staggering accident rates, and the safety of female transit passengers.
Yet there are bright spots. In Gujarat state’s largest city, Ahmadabad, the bus rapid transit (BRT) system—the country’s first— has been hailed for its innovative stations and its reach into lower-income neighborhoods. The success of the Delhi Metro has spurred other cities; a dozen subway systems are under way. Most recently launched is a 25-kilometer line in Kochi, a city that built the world’s first airport completely run by solar energy. Its metro will also draw power from the sun—at least 20 percent of its electricity needs.
Even auto-rickshaws, a quintessential part of India’s urban landscape, have been swept up in the winds of change. Over the past decade—along with buses and taxis—most have been converted to run on less polluting compressed natural gas.
Now India is tapping another source of power—technology, which is poised to transform how its citizens get around their cities. India is a center of tech-driven start-ups, and over 200 entrepreneurs are venturing to create more accessible, sustainable mobility models—and a more user-friendly experience. While services are often niche, some are scalable and offer the potential to reduce traffic and emissions and expand commuting options.
National Geographic spoke with Jyot Chadha, who heads the urban innovation initiative at the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities in Mumbai, about solutions for developing mass transit in India.
What’s your view of urban transit priorities?
With the government’s smart city movement and the road safety bill, we’ve seen many new initiatives. We have a lot of work to do and it’s slow going. We need to design cities where pedestrians can walk more and cycle more. That is the future. Beyond walking and cycling, one should be able to access public transport within 10 minutes of walking from a destination. We need an integrated schedule, so I know when the bus is coming, and integrated transfers so that I’m not double-paying. Once you have these core blocks in place—walking and cycling, public transport, interconnectedness of payment, information, and infrastructure—technologies can then be used to create better utilization of vehicles.
How has technology changed commuting?
New technologies are reinventing the ecosystem. Not only are they changing how we access transport—often through apps—but those apps are in turn providing data, allowing us to learn more about our cities and see trends. Innovations focus not just on building sustainable cities by reducing emissions, but also by improving access for women and low-income communities, and increasing the synergy between different modes of transport, which allows a commuter to transfer.
Until public transit networks catch up, what’s filling in the gaps?
One of the exciting things is the growth of private, on-demand bus service aggregators. Shuttl, Cityflo, ZipGo, and Ola Shuttle operate in big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. Apps allow passengers to book a ride and be assured of a seat and of timely arrival and departure. The services go where good public transport does not exist. These aggregators are seeing 30 to 50 percent of the commuters leaving their cars and motorbikes at home in favor of the bus. Models like this have the ability to keep people from shifting to cars, even as their incomes rise.
You analyzed on-demand bus services. What did you find?
Our study of Commut in Hyderabad uncovered something very surprising—60 percent of the customers were women. On public transportation, women account for about 30 percent of riders. The reasons for the uptick: Women found the service to be safer, faster, and hassle free. Commut operates 12- and 18-seat buses, and they’re able to pick up and drop people a lot closer to where they live or work than public buses. We found that 30 percent of these women used to drive or take a taxi to work—a move that’s good for the city.
How have you worked with government to improve public transportation?
We tend to build relationships with city and transit authorities that eventually lead to collaboration. EMBARQ, our urban mobility initiative, helped the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BTMC) restructure its bus network, the largest in India—6,500 vehicles carry five million daily passengers.
It began with a pilot program in one of the city’s major corridors to reduce commute and wait times by increasing the frequency of buses on the most popular routes. This rationalization of routes allowed the city to provide better service for the same assets. We’ve now expanded the project to explore how bus services can be made more appealing, not just for existing riders, but also to draw others who are currently using taxis.
The principal agony for a bus commuter is waiting. What can be done?
In Bangalore, BMTC will soon share its data on routes, schedules, etc. with the public. No transit agency in India has ever done that. Once it does, I have no doubt that entrepreneurs will respond with apps. In Boston, one of the U.S. cities to open up its data, over a dozen apps were developed in just two months to track buses, timetables, alerts. In India we have enough software and start-up talent to make great use of this data. If public transport becomes more convenient, it could lead to more people using it.
How do auto-rickshaws fit into the future?
Auto-rickshaws are important in cities as they often provide that first- and last-mile connectivity to or from bus, train, and metro stations. We’ve worked to make them more viable.
In Chennai auto-rickshaws didn’t have meters; drivers routinely overcharged customers. This led to a downward spiral in which commuters avoided auto-rickshaws, which in turn made drivers more aggressive and more likely to overcharge. We worked with the government to create a system of setting affordable fares that still allow drivers to earn a decent living.
In 2014 we launched the Rickshaw Rising Challenge to look at how technology-led innovation could transform this sector. Several experiments came out of that: an attempt to create an organized fleet in the city of Rajkot; installing a tracking device for getting auto-rickshaws on-demand through an app; a call center that dispatches drivers; helping drivers with finance so they can own their vehicles, instead of renting them at exorbitant rates for 20 years; recruiting women to become drivers.
What’s the role for electric vehicles?
The Indian government has ambitious goals for our transition to electric vehicles. Instead of focusing on individually owned vehicles, we should think about zero-emission vehicles for shared mobility fleets like buses and taxis. Economically, the up-front cost of electric vehicles makes more sense if the vehicle is driving 100 or 150 kilometers a day, rather than 20 kilometers by one commuter. The city of Nagpur recently launched a pilot project with Ola cabs and manufacturer Mahindra to put 200 electric vehicles in circulation.
Has crowdsourcing influenced any apps?
Safetipin is focused on gender safety in public places. But it’s not just about pressing a panic button—the app allows people to input how they feel about their well-being in different parts of a city. Users have a few parameters to “audit,” including gender balance, street lighting, and sidewalk quality. These audits are aggregated as red (worrisome) and green (good) dots on a map. For instance, a red area could appear because street lighting is inadequate at a particular bus stop. Safetipin’s data leads to targeted interventions by city authorities.
Another is Ridlr, which provides real-time traffic information. The app also allows something previously unavailable in India—buying a ticket for public transit online. That improves the efficiency of the daily commute.
What about commuting by walking?
Indian cities have been in a phase of narrowing sidewalks to widen roads for cars. The amount of space given to pedestrians is so tiny that they must walk on the road and then take up a whole lane where cars could be driving.
Now an initiative called Raahgiri Day is working to reclaim streets for people. It began in 2013 when Gurgaon, a city just south of New Delhi, allowed us to shut down a five-kilometer stretch on a main road every Sunday morning, making it possible for people to walk or ride a bicycle and for children to play. Raahgiri Day events are now happening in 40 cities in India. It raises the question of what kind of community we want to create—more cars on the street doesn't create a community.
India also dubiously holds the top place in the world for pedestrian deaths in road accidents—about 7,000 in 2015. It's a ridiculous number. This is not about telling someone to look right or left, or fining those who are jaywalking. If you haven't created the right infrastructure for people to pass or cross a street, if someone has to walk one kilometer to get to a crossing, they’re not going to do it. The first priority for a city should be to make more walking possible.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Niloufer Venkatraman is the former editor in chief of the India editions of National Geographic and Traveler magazines.
This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.