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Public transport – A key element of smart cities

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On 8 August 2018, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council Speaker Corey Johnson passed the bill to cap the number of for-hire Uber and other ride-share services for one year. The move, they say, will curtail the worsening traffic on the streets of New York and improve low driver wages. Similarly, in London, Uber recently regained its taxi license after the company agreed to stricter regulations. These incidents not only indicate the menace of increasing private vehicles in urban spaces, but underline the urgency of having efficient mass public transit systems.

Today when India, through the Smart City project, plans to ease the ever-growing pressure of its burgeoning urban population on services, one of the key factors determining its success will be good mobility and transportation system. The pollution levels in Delhi, traffic snarls in Bangalore or low average speed of mobility in Mumbai is a clear indication that out cities must urgently build sustainable public transport systems. Indian cities are already facing a plethora of problems like severe congestion, deteriorating air quality and increasing road rage and road accidents. With an increasing urban population that is projected to more than double to 590 million by 2030, the traffic situation is set to worsen further.

Data indicates that citizens are largely dependent on private modes of transport for their city rides. The number of registered vehicles increased from 55 million in 2001 to 159 million in 2012. The share of two wheelers has increased by four percent from 2001 to 2012 and the share of cars, jeeps and taxis has increased by 0.2 percent. Alarmingly, the share of buses has decreased by 0.34 percent over the same period, showing under-investment in improving the capacity of public transport systems.

The Government of India has taken a note of urban mobility issues in the Smart Cities Mission. It has stated that the building blocks of smart cities in India should include efficient urban mobility and public transport. In particular, the Smart Cities Mission has identified three key points for efficient urban mobility: Smart Parking, Intelligent Traffic Management and Integrated Multi Modal Transport.

While these are very integral points for having smooth mobility within the city, city governments should give preference to public transport over private vehicles. Smart parking, intelligent traffic management or even multi modal transportation will eventually help cities cope with the ever increasing number of private vehicles, without arresting their exponential growth. Such measures will remain largely ineffective unless there is a parallel shift toward providing safe, punctual and comfortable public transportation to suit the specific requirements all sections of the society.

Ideally, an efficient public transport system should have:

  • Right of Way: The most fundamental criteria for any successful public transport system is that the speed and frequency of public transport should be unhindered and better than that of private vehicles. This can be achieved by having dedicated bus lanes, so that mass public transport vehicles can travel at faster speeds and not be caught in congested roads. In this manner, public transport becomes a more viable option for the people than travelling by private vehicles, as the average speed of a vehicle in most cities during peak hours is 10-12km/hr. There should be a constant watch on the sale of private vehicles and capping measures like taxation, increased parking fares to disincentivise people from buying more private vehicles.
  • Seamless Connectivity: In a smart city, various public transportation providers do not compete with each other but rather compete to complement each other. The thinking must change from creating public transport hubs based on population centricity to a more analytical approach that accounts for travel patterns. The routes and the fares should be decided scientifically rather than being a populist choice. There must be a focus on last-mile connectivity, where travel from a transportation hub (e.g. train station, bus stop) to the commuter’s destination must be accounted for. The recent Station Access and Mobility Programme (STAMP) led by WRI India and the Toyota Mobility Foundation offers solution to the problem of last-mile connectivity for the metro travellers in the city of Bangalore. Even the Uber-Ola kiosks at railway stations and airports can be similarly planned at certain identified junctures in the city to provide the seamless last mile connectivity to the urban commuters. One notable example of this is the launch of dedicated ‘Ola kiosks’ at five key Delhi Division railway stations offering a solution for last-mile connectivity and improving the overall mobility experience.
  • Mass Pubic Transport System: One of the crucial elements of the Public transport system which gives it a cutting edge over private vehicles is its ability to mobilise a large number of commuters simultaneously. The PPHPD (Passenger Per Hour Peak Direction) capacity of a mass public transportation significantly outnumbers that of private vehicles. This makes public transportation system outweigh private vehicles in cost benefit analysis.
  • Unified body governing various modes of public transport: There should be a merger of various public transport service providers under an apex body. Like TFL (Transport for London) we should empower and enforce UMTA (Unified Metropolitan Transportation Authority) in Indian cities. UMTA should oversee operations, broad rules and regulations of various public and private transportation service providers in the city. For example, Mumbai has various public service providers such as suburban railway service by Western Railway and Central Railway, bus services by the municipal corporations of Greater Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Kalyan-Dombivli, Thane, Mira-Bhayandar, besides the metro rail services by Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRCL). It also has private services rendered by autorickshaws, the kalipeeli taxis, Ola, Uber etc. All these have their independent governing bodies or unions but there is no central body which oversees their operations and aligns their efforts for better commuter experience. With such an apex body the government’s objective of having an Integrated Multi Modal Transport System will become more attainable.
  • GPS-based, real-time tracking and route information: Providing accurate and timely information about public transportation is necessary to increase its dependability. Commuters should know when their trains and buses will arrive, so that they can plan their trip accordingly. The ‘m-Indicator’ app for example provides the schedule of most of the public transportation systems available in the city of Mumbai. With over 10 million users, mostly comprising local train commuters, it has helped people schedule their commute time. However, the app doesn’t show the real time tracking of the service neither gives updates about delays or cancellations. Real time tracking and updates will make commuters more confident about the system and tilts their preference towards public transportation. A smart city cannot operate in primitive manner, it needs to embrace the use of available technology.
  • Comfort and safety: Commuters should feel safe and comfortable while using public transport. This can be achieved through providing different public transportation options (e.g. AC/non-AC buses), having better CCTV surveillance systems, and ensuring accessibility to emergency helplines/buttons.


Public transportation serves a larger interest and delivers more benefits than private transportation. One of the foremost benefits of it is the low carbon emissions. This shall advertently lead to a healthy urban space. The usage of more alternative fuels like CNG or electric vehicles should be encouraged. Efficient public transport also increases the work efficiency and hence the economy of the state which again is one of the reasons of creating such urban spaces in the first place.

Hence, we should learn from the pitfalls of the wanton urbanisation and also learn from the other successful global urban models. Be it Beijing, Paris, Singapore, New-York or London all have resorted in incentivising public transport and discouraging the use of private vehicles. Recent capping of new Uber vehicles in New York shows this favouritism towards mass public transportation system. The smart city planners should have a blueprint for its transportation system which can be adapted and customised pan India. As Gustavo Petro, Mayor of Columbia said, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

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