Smart Mobility

  • People cycle on Gurgaon streets during a Raahgiri Day, India’s first sustained car-free event launched in the city in 2013. EMBARQ India helped in conceptualizing and organizing the event. Photograph courtesy EMBARQ

Madhav Pai puts feet, bikes and buses before cars to advance India’s urban centers.

Interested in a fast-paced, exciting, active urban life in a center of Indian business and culture? If so, don’t buy a car.

At least, that’s how Madhav Pai, an expert on smart urban transportation, would have it. Pai is the India director of the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, a Washington D.C.-based organization that works to make urban sustainability a reality. He is also the director for EMBARQ India, a sustainable urban mobility initiative of the World Resources Institute started in 2008. Pai focuses on helping Indian cities overcome challenges posed by congestion, sprawl and energy inefficiency.

“For over a century, the prevailing paradigm in urban transport has been dominated by cars. However, the increasing dependency on cars has produced tremendous negative externalities, including air pollution, chronic congestion, traffic accidents, greenhouse gas emissions and social exclusion,” says Pai. “These challenges have pushed human society to a tipping point, compelling the need for a paradigm shift.”

The shift Pai calls for includes cars, but as a side feature—not the main component—of urban transportation networks. He envisions modern Indian urban transport as one that’s governed by the following key principles.


Restricting the use of cars and transferring their costs to owners
Pai believes that the use of cars should be limited in urban centers and users should bear the full cost of car ownership. Right now, “parking is free or heavily subsidized, and Indian cities have very liberal policies on off-street parking,” says Pai. Such a model does more harm than good, especially when “cars cater to five to seven percent of the population but monopolize 80 to 90 percent of the public space,” he adds.


Designing roads for universal access
As much as 30 to 40 percent of Indian city dwellers walk or ride bicycles, according to Pai. But “road infrastructure, as it is designed today, is unsafe for these users,” he says. Pai cites New York and London as examples of cities that changed their roads to cater to walkers and cyclists, while also reimagining them as public spaces with chairs and potted plants.


Expanding mass transit systems to serve people equitably
“Indian cities need to actively focus on upgrading their bus systems,” says Pai, noting that buses allow for quick and cost-effective scaling of mass transit.


Integrating physical assets, schedules and fares
Global Positioning System (GPS) provides the necessary technology for posting real-time bus schedules and automating fares. Indian cities need to provide the necessary data like timetables and fare plans to app developers to create tools that bring the data to residents in usable ways, says Pai.

The bigger challenges, however, are physical assets like depots, terminals and transfer stations as they are dependent on land availability.


Sharing mobility
“We are moving to a paradigm of mobility as a service, and not mobility as an owned asset,” says Pai, noting the emergence of connected vehicles through services like Uber and Ola. India needs to establish a regulatory framework to “proactively engage with these advances and ensure public-good goals are achieved,” he adds.

While knowing what steps to take is critical to get the ball rolling on smart transportation for Indian cities, Pai cautions that the change will be “a long battle.”

“It will impact businesses of several incumbents, like car manufacturers, construction companies and real estate developers, who build distant, dispersed and disconnected settlements,” he says.

India’s goal, Pai notes, is to make the transition to sustainable transportation in 10 years, but it could take longer. He says that similar changes took more than 30 years to develop in the United States, where they started in the late 1970’s and came to fruition around 2010, and more than 20 years to manifest in Latin America, where governments undertook them in the late 1980’s and began seeing early successes in 2010.

India can learn from the experiences of both the United States and Latin America, says Pai. He, however, recommends not modeling Indian cities after some of the more sprawling, car-dependent American metropolises like Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta, which are plagued by traffic congestion and long commutes—problems their leaders acknowledge and work to combat constantly. But, he notes that the United States is a leader in developing technology to sustain smart transportation. “Mapping technologies and GPS came from the U.S. and soon driverless cars will come from the U.S.,” says Pai. “Silicon Valley investor-backed companies will lead the way on new, disruptive technologies.”

Pai attributes his theoretical knowledge of transportation policy, in part, to his time studying at the University of California, Berkeley, where he completed his Master’s degree in transport planning. There, he examined the impact of a carsharing program called “City CarShare” in San Francisco, one of the leading programs in the United States.

But it’s Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who ultimately inspired Pai to focus on advancing sustainable transportation in India. Pai was hooked when he heard Peñalosa speak about Bogotá’s TransMilenio, the mass bus system he implemented, along with about 320 kilometers of bicycle lanes and large public spaces.

As Pai furthers his smart mobility initiatives in India, he keeps Peñalosa’s words in mind:

Birds are meant to fly; fish are meant to swim; humans are meant to walk, says Pai, paraphrasing Peñalosa. We need to walk for our health and our happiness.


Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.