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Can Tech-Startups Resolve the Dilemma of Urban Mobility in India?

Arriving late to work, getting stuck in traffic every other day, trains not running and commuting in packed public vehicles, these are some of the commuting problems every city dweller faces. Erratic schedules, lack of good connectivity, unsafe modes of transport along with a lack of accurate information on public transit is together contributing to the declining commuter appetite for public modes of travel.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the bestseller Traffic: Why we drive the way we do? posed the classic question which almost every country in the world faces today regarding its transportation scenario: If we can’t build more infrastructure, i.e. roads, highways etc. due to a space crunch, how do we manage the demand? This couldn’t be more applicable to cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, where growth in car ownership will simply imply no more space to drive.

Today, technology can play a critical role in tackling the challenge of urban commuting. Three key aspects include -providing comprehensive, real-time information regarding public transport, popularizing the concept of shared transportation and introducing more mass transportation options which are high on the comfort factor without burning a hole in the average commuter’s pockets. Fortunately, the broken public transport system of India has attracted numerous start-ups which have broadly identified the following routes to ease out the experience of urban travel:-

1.Real-time data generation of traffic and allied information: Per the Indian Census 2011, buses are the staple mode of intra-city transport in most urban cities inIndia. They, however, run on unpredictable schedules with limited visibility on arrival times. Infact surveys suggest that people typically wait for 15-20 minutes for their bus. Globally, start-ups such as Citymapper are utilizing data from public transport bodies to provide an accurate estimate of the real-time arrival apart from information on schedules, fare structures and help with journey planning to consumers on their mobile.

Indian municipalities and transport operators have finally realized the potential of such services. Infact under the Smart City projects, these bodies have started working with technology partners to generate and harness the potential of billions of real-time data points around transport. The data generated will not only improve customer convenience and hence ridership but will also help transport operators improve fleet efficiency, planning and profitability.

2) Shared economy: The principle of shared economy has started to gradually permeate in the urban space -Uber for car sharing, Swiggy for shared delivery staff etc. A shared economy is expected to reduce the requirement for individual assets and increase utilization of the same.

This principle is highly relevant for transportation. We use our cars only 4-5% of the time – seems like such a tremendous waste of resources! A shared economy in transportation can go a long way to reduce traffic congestion, travel time, increase convenience and reduce pollution.

Technology is enabling autonomous platforms that can instantly aggregate, process and match real-time demand and supply travel requirements to provide commuters on-demand travel options. For example, ridesharing apps such as Lift enable shared, smart commuting by letting people offer or ask for a ride.

3) Alternate travel services: Is a train or a bus the best option for everyone – unlikely. How about offering shuttle services for office goers? Or work on increasing cycle rental platforms for those looking to cover only a short distance? Commuters are always seeking end-to-end travel options and have different preferences for cost, time spent and convenience. It is hence critical that cities focus on allowing multiple forms of transport to coexist and let commuters make the best choice for themselves.

It is important to recognize that majority of transport infrastructure in India is owned and operated by the government. As it should be the government is also responsible for planning cities and public infrastructure. However, the government must recognize the role that private companies and technology can play in improving the quality of this public service.

A public-private collaboration or GovTech as this sector is now being called, can bring about multiple synergies and advantages for all stakeholders, including efficient use of capital, increased focus on core competencies, etc. The government needs to foremost put in place a regulatory frame work that facilitates companies to grow. In the last few years, several Indian start-ups in this space have been forced to shut down due to lack of clarity on regulation, which prevented them from raising capital and scaling business.