With countries across the globe encouraging work from home due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the first casualty has been the transport system. In India, the pandemic brought the transport system to a complete halt, making it one of the worst-affected sectors. As the lockdown gradually begins to be lifted, there is a big question on what transport systems will have to do to survive in a post-COVID world.
Due to physical distancing norms, public transport capacity is expected to be utilised at 25-50 per cent of the pre-COVID levels. Such drastic and pronounced changes in demand would require not only technological interventions but also alternative modes of transport to complement conventional modes. While the government has already been taking a number of technological initiatives prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, increasing the pace of implementation and taking additional initiatives would be the key drivers of mobility in the future.
One of the biggest learnings from the pandemic is how mobility in urban areas needs to become more resilient and accessible through the integration of technology-driven solutions. Accordingly, the government has started strategising to develop transport solutions for the post-COVID world. In its three-pronged strategy, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) has proposed greater utilisation of technology to curb the spread of COVID-19. The MoHUA has proposed increasing the use of cashless and touchless systems like BHIM, PhonePe, Google Pay and Paytm, among others, to reduce human interaction in the operation of public transport systems. To this end, the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation has allowed passengers to pay through a QR code facility using various payment apps.
The MoHUA has also stressed upon the need to expedite the adoption of a National Common Mobility Card (NCMC) to reduce human interaction in the operations of public transit systems. Launched with the tag line One Nation One Card, the central government launched the NCMC in March 2019 to enable seamless travel on different transportation systems across the country, besides retail shopping. One of the features of the card, a local wallet (stored value account) can be used for contactless payments, without the need to go back to the server for additional authentication. Ahmedabad deployed the country’s first automatic fare collection (AFC) system based on the One Nation One Card model. In order to showcase the NCMC ecosystem for digital fare collection, the complete AFC system has been deployed in the Delhi metro across a few stations for a field trial. In May 2020, the Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation invited tenders to introduce the NCMC to encourage cashless travel. Meanwhile, in December 2019, the government stated that 11 transport agencies in the country have been using NCMC facilities. All the initiatives taken to promote digital payments discourage physical exchange of currency, hence reducing the spread of the contagion. The adoption of the NCMC is bound to increase in order to ensure physical distancing.
In December 2019, the government made the deployment of FASTags mandatory for all vehicles in order to save fuel and time, reduce pollution and ensure seamless traffic movement. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways launched the National Electronic Toll Collection programme for user fee collection through FASTag, based on radio frequency identification technology, thereby reducing physical contact.
One of the vital components of the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) is smart mobility solutions. From the development of physical infrastructure to the deployment of information and communication technology solutions for management and monitoring purposes, mobility solutions form an important aspect for the overall realisation of the SCM. Several cities have deployed intelligent transport systems such as AFC systems, e-wallets and digital payment options. Today, most of the operational mass transit systems including the Delhi metro, Bengaluru metro and the Surat bus rapid transit system use AFC systems. With this smart technology, fare collection mechanisms in various modes of transport have evolved from coins, paper tickets and token-based systems to card-based digital payment systems. These systems have been quite successful in reducing human-to-human contact and are expected to witness increased uptake once public transport systems restart operations.
Recently, in April 2020, the MoHUA embarked on the Integrated Sustainable Urban Transport Systems for Smart Cities project, in collaboration with GIZ, in three cities – Bhubaneswar, Kochi and Coimbatore. Under the project, a technical document on standard operating procedures has been prepared for resuming bus transport services after the lifting of the lockdown.
The deployment of intelligent traffic management systems (ITMS) will also need to be encouraged to ensure adherence to physical distancing norms. The Kanpur ITMS is a centralised traffic control and surveillance system that ensures smooth and hassle-free movement of people and vehicles. The ITMS is also supported by a public address system and has emergency call boxes installed at important junctions. Lucknow has also put a similar ITMS in place.
It is evident that the current public transport system cannot meet demand while ensuring physical distancing. Though enough stress has been laid on digitalising the payment process to reduce physical contact, non-motorised transport (like public bike sharing [PBS] systems) will also need to be encouraged to reduce the pressure on public transport. In its three-pronged strategy, the MoHUA has also laid emphasis on encouraging and reviving non-motorised transport (NMT). As most urban trips are under 5 km, there are considerable implementation opportunities for NMT systems. Smartphone mapping applications developed for NMT show bike availability and the number of open docks at each station, thus increasing user convenience. The Greater Chennai Corporation is the first megacity to adopt an NMT policy, of which PBS is an important part. The PBS project has real-time monitoring across stations, a smart card technology for user fee collection and an anti-theft geotagging feature. Entailing an investment of Rs 100 million, the project was completed in 2019. Mysore Smart City Limited had also introduced a PBS system in 2017. Termed TrinTrin, it has 52 hubs spread across the city and has made 450 cycles available for public use. A central control centre has been set up for controlling and monitoring the system along with a website and a mobile app for enquiries and registration. Of the total number of public transport users, 30 per cent have shifted from motorised modes to the PBS system. Faridabad Smart City Limited has also earmarked an area of 1,267 acres to be developed into a well-planned urban space (Sectors 19, 20, 20A, 21B and 21D), pedestrianisation, and deployment of NMT systems and ITMS (intelligent car parking system, smart signage, smart auto/taxi stands, PBS system and sky walkways). Going forward, in the post-COVID world more cities are likely to adopt such solutions.
The road ahead
Conventional public transport systems and COVID-19 do go hand in hand. The former has to change its ways of operation to combat the latter. Since physical distancing norms and the risk of getting infected are expected to continue, the mobility sector will have to change accordingly.
While the COVID-19 outbreak has certainly brought its own set of challenges, it has also opened several avenues for technology providers. Exploiting the potential of technology to the fullest will not only benefit service providers and commuters but will also ensure adherence to the changing norms.
It is imperative that transmission of the contagion through the use of transport services is contained by increased sanitisation, containment and adequate distancing. Such a strategy has to focus on NMT and the use of technology in public transport so as to avoid physical contact.