Smart urban mobility and public transport is one of the core infrastructure elements of the Smart Cities Mission (SCM). With countries across the globe encouraging work-from-home due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the first casualty has been the public transport system. As the lockdown gradually begins to be lifted, there is a key question regarding what transport systems will have to do to survive, especially in a post-Covid world. With ridership levels expected to be 25-50 per cent of the pre-Covid levels, so as to ensure adherence to physical distancing norms, significant technological interventions and alternative modes of transport will be required to complement the conventional modes.
Smart mobility involves creating connected transport systems that offer both flexibility and efficiency. To this end, a number of smart mobility solutions such as public bicycle sharing (PBS), smart parking systems and smart cards are being developed. A number of cities such as Bhopal, Pune, Mysuru and Jaipur have already launched PBS systems to provide seamless app-based access to vehicles for last-mile transport.
Another smart solution being adopted by the smart cities is the use of smart cards. These cards facilitate seamless movement across various modes of transportation through a single card for payment of tickets and tolls.
Today, most operational mass transit systems deploy automated fare collection (AFC) systems. It is one of the most important types of intelligent transport system (ITS) solutions as it creates the primary interface between customers and the operator. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation introduced the country’s first contactless ticketing system using smart cards and tokens. The corporation uses state-of-the-art devices for AFC through contactless smart cards and contactless smart tokens for commuters.
A similar AFC system has been deployed in the Bengaluru metro and the Surat bus rapid transit system (BRTS). In addition to offering greater convenience for everyday payments and a hassle-free travel experience, the AFC system also enables better fare revenue collection, provides reliable ridership and system data to the operator and reduces operational costs.
Another important ITS solution deployed in metro systems and BRTSs is an electronic passenger information system. It involves the installation of an LED display screen that provides information related to arrivals/departures, delays and traffic status on a real-time basis. The Ahmedabad BRTS boasts of a public information system along with a global positioning system and a centralised control room.
In order to ensure greater safety, modern signalling systems have been deployed in major metro projects including those in Delhi, Bengaluru, Lucknow and Kochi. These signalling systems include centralised automatic train control involving automatic train operations, automatic train protection and automatic train signalling systems. Meanwhile, the SCM has the deployment of intelligent traffic management systems (ITMSs) as one of the key components under the mobility segment. A number of smart solutions such as a centralised command and control centre to control and regulate traffic movement in the city, traffic sensors, CCTV cameras at main roads, automatic number plate recognition systems and red light violation detection systems have been included under the purview of ITMSs. Besides, the use of touchless and cashless systems such as BHIM, Google Pay, PhonePe and Paytm are also being promoted to reduce human intervention in public transportation operations.
With the nationwide lockdown announced to stem the spread of Covid-19, public transport services came to a grinding halt. Further, users shunned intermediate public transport services such as autos, taxis, ride hailing and sharing.
However, even before the lockdown was imposed, public transit systems saw ridership tank as millions of commuters were following the physical distancing guidelines and restrictions in line with various health advisories. For example, the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) suffered losses to the tune of Rs 17.5 million during March 1-15, 2020 on cancelling 92 intercity buses. Similarly, the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation suffered losses of Rs 30 million during March 11-16, 2020, on cancelling around 21,000 trips.
In view of the declining traffic numbers, public transit faces the double whammy of not just reduced fare revenue but also subdued income from non-fare sources dependent on sales. To put things in perspective, in mass rapid transit systems, 20-30 per cent of the total earnings are from non-fare sources, of which 48 per cent is from advertising. Further, in the case of city buses, 25 per cent of the non-fare revenue comes from advertising.
Likely post-Covid scenario
With the decrease in travel demand and the willingness of public transport users to shift to other modes of transport, the share of private cars, shared taxis and non-motorised transport is expected to increase in the near future.
Questions are also being raised as to whether bus operators will be able to reach pre-Covid levels at all due to increased work-from-home and the consequent reduction in travel needs. Currently, only 50 per cent of the buses are running in the country. In particular, KSRTC is operating only 150 trips, as against 400 trips prior to the pandemic. Similarly, the Delhi Transport Corporation also has low ridership levels as only 20 passengers are permitted per bus to maintain physical distancing.
Going forward, financial losses due to Covid-19 could amount to up to Rs 1.5 trillion for the public bus sector. Further, the country would need over 600,000 buses for around 25 million commuters daily so as to follow the distancing guidelines. However, with the opening up of work-places and other destinations in the country, captive users are likely to go back to public transport modes. In this respect, developing standard operating procedures and protocols for safe travel will be key to attracting ridership.
Nevertheless, service operators are expected to face a plethora of challenges while resuming public transport services. Key among these are crowd management to ensure physical distancing, advanced service planning to meet uncertain demand, meeting the financial needs for continuing operations, recovering from losses, and limited availability of staff workers.
Hence, multidimensional interventions centred on people, technology and infrastructure are needed in order to overcome the challenges created by the pandemic. Financial support from the government in terms of insurance, tax exemptions, moratorium period on principal amount of loans, etc., will go a long way in helping private operators cover their losses. Exploring options other than fare box revenue generation methods will help not only in diversifying revenue sources, but also in minimising the quantum of loss suffered. Further, promoting contactless fare collection technologies will help in minimising the use of physical cash-based ticketing transactions. Developing dedicated infrastructure in cities such as bus priority lanes will also help in improving service quality, enabling buses to run faster. Lastly, regular cleaning and sanitising of contact areas will help in reducing the risk of transmission of the virus.
Net, net, strategic interventions around public transport are urgently required for ensuring balanced demand and supply of safe and efficient mobility solutions. Such measures will not only help in redistributing demand for public transport services during peak hours, but also in building a resilient mobility system in the country.
Based on inputs from a presentation by Vivek Ogra, Partner, Smart Mobility Leader, PwC, at a recent India Infrastructure conference