Organised by: Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi

Date & Time: September 22, 2021, at 06:00 PM

CPPR 18th Quarterly Lecture: Opportunities and Challenges in India’s Urban Mobility Ecosystem

About the Event

The Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi, initiated the Quarterly Lecture Series in November 2012 with the aim of casting light on socio-economic and political themes. The 18th edition of its Quarterly Lecture Series was organised to deliberate on Opportunities and Challenges in India’s Urban Mobility Ecosystem as the transportation systems are an essential prerequisite for economic growth and human development.


Geetam Tiwari is Professor and Head, Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Center (TRIP Center), IIT Delhi. She has about 25 years of professional experience in the areas of Transport Planning and Traffic Engineering in India, USA, Bangladesh and African Countries. She has been involved in interdisciplinary research in the areas of traffic and transport planning, public transport systems and traffic safety focusing on pedestrians, bicycles and bus systems of special relevance to low-income countries. She has worked with city, state and national governments in India on public transport and road safety projects. Her work has been supported by Volvo research and Education Foundations, International Association of Traffic Safety Sciences, Japan, and European Union and National Institute of Health, USA. She continues to collaborate with Cambridge University, University of Chicago, Cape town University and IFSTTAR, France. She obtained a Master of Urban Planning and Policy, and Ph.D. in Transport Planning and Policy, from the University of Illinois, Chicago. She has received the degree of Doctor of Technology honoris causa from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden in 2012. She has over 100 publications in peer reviewed journals and has co-edited four books on transport planning and safety.


Praseeda Mukundan is the Senior Research Associate at CPPR.

Proceedings Report

The event began with the welcome address given by Praseeda, who gave a brief insight into the history of CPPR’s quarterly lecture series. She then introduced the keynote speaker, Professor Geetam Tiwari and the theme of the lecture.

Professor Geetam, in her opening remarks, stated “Each one of us at some level or the other is kind of an expert in transport as we all have different experiences while on the road using different modes of transport.” She went on to describe how the focus of the media and public has always been on car congestion when asked about the most worrying transport problem. However, the Professor opines that car congestion is one of the least important worries with regard to achieving sustainable modes of transport under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations (UN). In support of her statement, she referred to the 2011 census of the composition of commuters in urban areas. Nearly 50% of the trips in all urban areas were undertaken by non-motorised transport (NMT), namely, pedestrians and cyclists, 20% were by motorised two-wheelers and only 5% trips were by cars. In spite of this, there is little discussion about commuting by buses, cycles and pedestrians as compared to car congestion. She also pointed out that there are gender-based differences in the mode of transport used.

The next point Professor Geetam brought up was that of understanding the distance travelled by workers. Majority of the commuters stay closer to their places of work. This leads to mixed land use patterns and shorter trips to the workplace because of which almost 25% of the workers say that they do not have to travel. This could imply that their trip is so short that they do not consider it as travel. It is important to raise this issue as it will help in identifying the most suitable mode of transport for shorter distances, that is, less than 5 kms. She also mentioned that irrespective of the standard of economy, states have the highest proportion of small trips of less than 5 kms. Very small percent of trips are longer than 20 kms.

Among the 17 SDGs, sustainable transport has been included in 7 goals and is directly covered by 5 of them. The Professor believes that prioritizing NMT and public transport is the key to all these goals. It is both a challenge and an opportunity for us. She listed out the major challenges in attaining SDGs into three broad categories. The first one is to strike a balance between technology and sustainable transport systems. To explain this, a comparison was drawn between diesel buses and electric cars with respect to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions based on the statistics given in Energy Policy, Volume 39, Issue 6, 2011, which indicated that diesel cars were the better option. Another comparison was done between metro (rail transport) and CNG-run buses (road transport) using life cycle assessment techniques. It was observed that the metro produces 7.5 times more carcinogens & 1.8 times more GHG as compared to CNG buses. Based on this analysis, Prof. Geetam commented “We should take up many pilot projects as we cannot promote electrification to solve all our problems”.

The second challenge is the growing burden of road traffic crashes which is a public health crisis. The victims in mid-sized and small cities are mostly pedestrians, bicyclists & 2-wheeler riders, they account for almost 80% of the fatal crashes and the striking vehicles are usually cars, buses and trucks. Majority of the crashes are along the highways which are near or inside the city areas. This problem has to be addressed by making systemic changes.

The third concern is the deteriorating air quality and the lack of data on it to identify and resolve the issue. To put this into perspective, the Professor cited the example of the extensive discussions about the air quality in Delhi, while that of the small cities near Delhi are ignored.

In light of these challenges, Prof. Geetam specified the following guiding principles for achieving the SDGs. Road geometric standards should be viewed from the perspective of users of buses, bicyclists and pedestrians. Different roads should be designed differently based on their typology. Intersection designs should include roundabouts as they will be more bus, bicycle and pedestrian friendly rather than Y or T junctions. Moreover, traffic safety is very much related to speed. High speed decreases the field of vision of the driver and so this should be considered while fixing the speed limits in the city. In case of combatting fatal crashes, the maximum benefit comes when vehicle technology is included with enforcement and infrastructure changes.

The Professor then went on to say that according to her, SDG targets are not a priority for local administrations. The cities need national support and encouragement to adopt SDGs. She also stated that it is difficult to comment on whether community engagement can expedite the implementation of SDG compliant policies and investment as the outcome cannot be measured in the short term. Prof. Geetam further spoke about the action research strategies indicating major data gaps in air pollution and travel data and under reporting of road traffic figures. She concluded her keynote address by saying that the ground implementation of strategies to attain SDGs is a long process that needs continuous efforts and demonstration projects and opened the platform for questions.

Praseeda raised the first question about what role the local governments could play since transport is a concurrent subject. To this, Prof. Geetam replied that only the organised public transport system is a concurrent subject but pedestrians and bicycles come under city government’s purview because the streets are designed by local municipality/PWD. The two main problems to be addressed at the city level are the lack of capacity in terms of infrastructure requirements for public transport and NMT and the traffic management strategies to be implemented.

On being asked about going beyond state interventions and promoting self-regulation of the frequency of automobile-based travel, the Professor asserted that travel is a very individual decision. People use cars based on their comfort, convenience and reduced risks and may not prefer buses even if roads get congested. People using bicycles are captive users who cannot afford cars; they will also shift to cars if they can afford it. Structures like foot over bridges also promote car users as pedestrians are made to give way from the road. Government intervention is essential to influence the individual decisions and change this mindset. This can be done by making buses compete with cars in terms of access, convenience, reliability, by reserving lanes for buses to avoid travel delays and by not providing free parking to cars. In smaller Indian cities where organised bus systems are not feasible, Intermediate Public Transport (IPT) friendly regulations may be made which could compete with private modes of transport.

Speaking on the matter of increasing commuter confidence to use public transport services in the post-covid world, Prof. Geetam suggested that public transport must be sanitised, number of buses should be increased to avoid overcrowding, frequency of public transport must also be increased and the needs of captive consumers have to be addressed.

When asked about the Comprehensive Mobility Plans (CMP) and incentivising cities to adopt SDGs, the Professor pointed out that CMP was recommended in 2013, it should be revised now to include SDGs. The main worry now is that very few cities prepare CMP and many of the cities prepare the master plans without considering SDGs. Prof. Geetam states that she is not sure if CMP plays any role in the smart city discussions.

The next query was whether pushing for electrification of vehicles and introducing policies like the scrappage policy promote more private vehicles or just replace the existing private vehicles with an improved technology instead of curtailing them. The Professor agreed to this possibility. She further explained that there is a promotion of e-buses but because these buses are more expensive than CNG/diesel buses, the fleet may reduce and we may lose ridership. Prof. Geetam expressed her concern over electrifying 2-wheelers and incentivising people to use them as they are more prone to accidents or fatal crashes and the safety standards are not good enough. Instead, promoting more affordable public transport should be the vision. Electrifying 2-wheelers may move us in the opposite direction.

Another question from the audience was whether a circular economy can solve transportation problems in India, to which the Professor countered that the real question is whether it is practically possible to achieve a circular economy.

Praseeda then asked about the appropriateness of investing in capital-intensive, big-ticket static infrastructure projects like metro rail when our transport needs and solutions are becoming more dynamic with on-demand taxis, buses, app-based bike-sharing services, etc. In response to this, Prof. Geetam pointed out that there are two things to consider, one is the transportation construction project and the other one is looking for solutions to transportation problems such as least congestion, least pollution, high safety etc. “The Metro system is good for enabling long trips, it is attractive for city governments, but it does not provide network connectivity and does not solve sustainable transport problems”, she added.

Another audience member wanted to know if the 70-year-old central Act, ‘Road Transport Corporations Act-1950’ under which all State Transport Undertaking (STU) are structured and operated needed amendment and also the Professor’s opinion on transforming these STUs into Public Ltd companies. Prof. Geetam agreed that there is a need to relook at the Act. She explained, “STUs have performed well in some states, however they do not exist in some Northern parts of India like Madhya Pradesh. We have to understand what happened differently in the public buses in Southern states as compared to the North.”  Answering the question on whether the public could own shares in STUs, the Professor said that it is possible in the revised Act after considering 3 components, namely, the strategic planning, operational planning and the in-between day-to-day planning. If all the 3 functions are done by separate organisations, they perform better. “A complete overhaul of STUs is required as we find that long term vision is missing in them”, concluded the Professor.

On inquiring about shared auto rickshaw system being more economical and solving last-mile connectivity problem, Prof. Geetam pointed out that the last mile connectivity is all about walking, that is, majority of the people use buses and metros by walking, so improving the pedestrian infrastructure becomes important in solving this issue.

The host followed up with the question on the aptness of Kolkata imposing a ban on cycling in 64 arterial roads under the pretext of safety of cyclists or averting accidents. The Professor explained that safety and other sustainability targets are all linked. Banning cycles is not the right approach as it will have adverse impacts on air pollution and health. The correct strategy would be to create safer infrastructure for bicyclists on these arterial roads, this will help meet Target 11.2 of SDG to provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems and also reduce air pollution.

Prof. Geetam ended this lecture by stating that all the guidelines are available for promoting and implementing NMT at city level, however cities lack the funds or revenue sources for the same. The state governments should intervene and provide incentives to cities to try to attain SDGs. A separate cell could be constituted within municipalities/PWD to achieve these targets with financial support from state and central governments.

The host, Praseeda, concluded the session by highlighting two key takeaways. The first was how prioritising public transport and non-motorised transport are key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the second was the three challenges in attaining SDGs, namely, modern transport vs. sustainable transport system, growing burden of road traffic crashes and deteriorating air quality. She brought this discussion to a close by thanking Professor Geetam Tiwari, the audience and the organising team at CPPR for putting together this event.

This event report was prepared by April Varkey, Research Intern at CPPR

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