Sustainable Solutions: Innovation, investment and collective action needed to transform urban transport

The transportation network of a city is its cardiovascular system, with a multifaceted structure that enables continuous flow of people and goods through its arteries. Urban transportation plays a crucial role in shaping the quality of life in cities worldwide. A transportation project should be looked at from an angle of capital-cost recovery and its impact on property tax, industry, employment generation and transit-oriented development (TOD). Thus, an urban transportation project should be pondered upon with respect to its social as well as fi­nancial aspects. Moreover, it takes around se­ven to eight years for a metro project to reach the break-even point.

Urban transport is important to su­pport the mobility of passengers in large urban agglome­rations, especially since more than 50 per cent of the total population will be in urban are­as by 2050. Besides, transportation in urban areas is highly complex because of the different modes involved, multitude of origins and destinations, and the amount and variety of traffic. To this end, a well-planned framework is requir­ed to connect different modes of transport.

However, with increasing population and ur­banisation, urban transportation faces a series of challenges, which need to be add­ress­ed at the earliest. The availability of safe, reliable and comfortable transport will reduce carbon emissions.

Challenges faced

Urban transportation is facing numerous challenges, which are impacting both the environment and the well-being of residents. As per a study, the Indian economy has suffered a loss of about $22 billion-$25 billion of the gross domestic product because of traffic congestion. Besides, around 150-200 hours are lost to standing/waiting on roads in the country. This economic loss needs to be addressed at the earliest. Rapid urbanisation and an increase in the number of private vehicles on the roads have led to gridlocks in many cities. Traffic congestion not only wastes time and causes frustration but also contributes to inc­reased fuel consumption, air pollution and gr­een­house gas emissions.

Overall, approximately one-fourth of the global greenhouse gases is contributed by transportation sectors. If left unchecked the figure can reach 50 per cent. Emissions fr­om cars, trucks and buses contribute to poor air quality and have severe effects on public health. Thus, it has become necessary to look at alternative modes of transport.

Over the past few years, demand for public transport is continuously increasing with population growth, leading to increasing urban congestion. However, the supply side is weak in terms of providing adequate infrastructure and public transport. The government has started fo­cusing more on providing metro connectivity, but the supporting infrastructure for first- and last-mile connectivity is still inadequate. The extra time spent and inconvenience faced while travelling from home to a transit station and from the station to the destination has become a major deterrent to public transport use. Fur­ther, lack of physical integration for different modes at transit stations leads to accessibility issues that create a mental block against using public transport. Another challenge with alternative modes of transport is technology transfer and finding the right mix of technology.

In India, the transportation sector has several departments, and every department implements the central or state government projects in its own way, without catering to the individual needs of the cities. This results in a haphazard system of implementation of transportation plans.

Key recommendations

Greater emphasis needs to be laid on impleme­nting sustainable plans to reduce carbon footprint. Green transport solutions such as green buses and electric vehicles are environment-friendly. There is a need to focus more on new and innovative carbon-free technologies such as hydrogen and geothermal fuel. For instance, Iceland generates 100 per cent of its electricity with renewables; 75 per cent of it from large hydro and 25 per cent from geothermal.

Alternative modes of transport such as MetroLite, MetroNeo, bus rapid transit systems and ropeways should be adopted by cities. Tier II cities have started exploring these alternative modes. These systems have low operational costs as compared to conventional metro systems. For instance, the Varanasi cable car project is expected to become operational in the next two to three years. Other cities are looking at ropeways as a means of providing connectivity. Planning studies need to be done properly in order to introduce newer modes of transport, such as seaplane services.

Cities should focus on TOD as they will create dense, walkable and mixed-use spaces near transit stations that support vibrant, sustainable and equitable communities. TOD is any macro or micro development focused around a transit node, which results in impro­v­ed ease of access to the transit facility. It involves both station-oriented and corridor-oriented development. With availability of services within 3-5 km of the catchment area, traffic congestion can be avoided. Mahindra World City, Chengal­pattu, Tamil Nadu is India’s first integrated business city. The city is part of the Chennai Metropolitan Area and also part of the area covered by Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority. Globally, many cities have TOD as an integral element in their master planning and integrated with their mass transport networks.

Additionally, cities need to implement intelligent transportation systems (ITS) to further av­oid traffic congestion and prevent accidents. In Europe, ITS has resulted in reducing travel time by about 66 per cent, and about 22 per cent of accidents have been avoided. More­over, smart cities across India have started adopting ITS. These include automated signalling systems and junction improvement, am­ong other measures. For instance, Nagpur city has an ITS in place, which has reduced tra­vel time significantly.

Preparation of a public transport plan sh­ould be encouraged. Then, a framework needs to be created to implement the plan in five to se­v­en years. Cochin Water Metro is one such project developed as a result of such a plan. The wa­ter metro has a lower carbon footprint. The electric ferries are manufactured at the Co­chin Ship­yard in India, using international technology (tra­n­s­fer of technology). Moreover, customised in­frastructure plans should be made, as the nee­ds and requireme­nts of various cities are different. Hence, some interventions are required to make common plans for cities with similar popu­la­tions. Be­sides, multimodal options should be ad­­opted within cities with optimal zonal plann­ing, along with shifting of major infrastructural nodes.

The way forward for urban transportation lies in embracing sustainable and innovative solutions that address the challenges at hand. The decision-makers should be encouraged to think and plan for long-term development of the urban transport sector.

The way ahead

Electric mobility will lead the decarbonisation of India’s transport sector. Till now, electric vehicle (EV) adoption has met with certain challenges such as lack of charging infrastructure and high costs, among others. These challenges can be resolved to some extent with battery sw­a­pping, which allows the de-linking of EV charging and batteries. With continuous and increasing demand for EVs, different business models and battery de­signs should be explored.

The way forward for urban transportation lies in embracing sustainable and innovative solutions that address the challenges at hand. The decision-makers should be encouraged to think and plan for long-term development of the urban transport sector. Thus, it is imperative for policymakers, urban planners and residents to work in collaboration and prioritise sustainable urban transportation initiatives. By doing so, cities will be able to provide efficient, accessible and eco-friendly transportation op­tions for all, ultimately improving the quality of life and reducing the carbon footprint.

In the quest for sustainable urban transportation, the journey has just begun. With continued innovation, investment and collective action, liveable cities can be created that prioritise people and the environment at the same time, ensuring a brighter and more sustainable future for the generations to come.

Based on remarks by Ashish Kapur, Senior Vice-President, iDeCK; Ankush Malhotra, Head of Department, Consulting and Advisory Services, Systra India; and Arun Selvarasu, Director, Public Sector Consulting, Grant Thornton Bharat at India Infrastructure Forum 2023