Can The Urban Indian Give Up His Car?

by Pravesh Biyani - Jun 29, 2016 04:05 PM +05:30 IST
Can The Urban Indian Give Up His Car?Uber 

Why taxis are the smarter option compared to private cars for both, current cities and the smart cities of future.

In December 2014, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick revealed their ambitious plan to replace car ownership in the US by Uber taxis. This statement received both skepticism and enthusiasm. Whether Uber can achieve the zero-car-ownership in the US is yet to be seen, the idea of no private cars is something that India too could consider. While the transportation system in the upcoming smart cities in India should aim for zero private car ownership, the idea also has a great relevance for the older cities in India.

Recently there were many reports that Indian metros like Delhi and Bangalore are not only the most congested but also one of the most polluted cities in the world. One of the main reasons for congestion on the roads of big cities (and even mid-sized cities) in India (although this is not the only reason) especially during the rush hours, is private vehicles. The total number of private vehicles registered in Delhi itself is already upwards of 7.5 million and with more households benefiting from an economic boom in India, this number is going to only increase with time. An easy attempt towards decreasing congestion is to increase the road width as it has happened in Delhi and many other cities. Obviously one cannot go on adding lanes to the road forever. Delhi now has the highest road size to total area ratio in the world. But is the traffic problem solved?

The argument that public transport is a panacea for all transportation issues especially in metro areas is well known. And there is no doubt that an efficient, safe and convenient public transport in a city can indeed alleviate transportation issues to a certain extent. But Delhi is a glaring example where the metro and the Government run DTC buses are unable to take away the heavy private vehicle traffic from the roads.

Metro and buses are packed much above their capacity during the peak hours and riding them is still time-wise an inefficient and uncomfortable option. Moreover, riding the public transport is still considered to be a low profile option in social terms. In summary, government-run public transport is not going to put a major dent on the increasing private vehicles in metro cities.

But the good news is the rise of internet based cab companies like Uber, Meru and Ola. They have provided a platform to the private taxi owners with commercial licenses to deploy their cars and meet urban transportation demands. Many of the customers of these companies are those who own cars. These taxis run around 200-250 KMS a day, almost 10-15 times higher than a normal private vehicle in a city. Thus, their utilisation efficiency is much higher than a private vehicle. A private vehicle is parked almost 90% of the time, making the space they consume useless. On the other hand, since taxis run ten times more than private cars, they effectively act as 10 private cars in one.

For the car owners who drive daily to work, if the cost and convenience of radio taxis are favourable to owning their own cars, then the incentive of buying a new car would decrease. The ride would also be less stressful. Every additional commercial taxi on the road means the creation of more jobs and hence improving the economy. Moreover, these taxis can be mandated to run on CNG and thus can be much greener than the corresponding replaced private vehicles.

Decreasing the number of private vehicles on the road would need some taxation reforms. Currently, the tax liabilities of the commercial vehicles are complex and is in general much higher than the private vehicles. This needs to change. By creating a right incentivising structure, one can reduce the cost of ownership of commercial vehicle thereby passing the benefits to the end consumer. Another incentive could be to provide tax breaks on the car loan (just like home loans) for private car taxi owners. Although the article suggests a friendlier taxation for the radio taxis, it should not be construed as lobbying for them, for they are only a part of the solution this article is suggesting.

The idea of radio taxis can be easily extended to on-demand buses by allowing the private sector to participate in creating an efficient private-public transport in the city. In the past, Delhi did allow public transport to be run by private operators, popularly known as blue line buses, which shared the bus routes and stops with DTC and were run by private operators. However, the blue line routes had to be stopped after numerous accidents involving reckless driving of these buses to get more passengers. The idea of private operators driving buses on point to point routes needs to be re-looked.

Currently, chartered buses ply on Delhi routes but the passenger list has to be provided to the authorities beforehand and has to be approved. Thanks to the license raj, not many private operators have entered the point to point buses arena. Effective policy on making on-demand point to point buses can change the nature of public transport in the city. Journey data in the city suggests that most of the trips happen between major clusters of the city. Hence a point to point bus system – unlike a traditional bus system which stops at every stop – can be more efficient and effective.

With the advent of the smartphone-enabled world coupled with apps, it is now possible to understand the flow of traffic in the city with much clarity. Crucial measurement data such that how many people travel between any two major nodes of the city, and their current means of transport for these trips is extremely vital in designing of an efficient transportation system. By developing a synergy between the private and government driven transportation systems, such crucial data can not only be collected, but it will also help in further refining the policy for transport in a city. A data-driven policy towards meeting the transportation needs of the city can bring about positive changes in any city.

Modi government can aim for a zero car ownership smart city. A city where an effective private-public transport combined with a robust on-demand taxi infrastructure can cater to all needs of transportation in the city. This will indeed lead to a greener and smarter city.

Pravesh Biyani is an assistant professor at IIIT Delhi. He works on systems and optimisation of urban transportation. He tweets at @pravesh. 

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