Sustainable Mobility Amid COVID-19 Pandemic: Potential Risks and Opportunities

Deepty Jain

The majority of the travel demand in the Indian cities is met by the non-motorized and public transport systems, i.e., low carbon modes of transport. With the growing urbanization and income levels and the degraded infrastructure to support the low carbon modes, the dependency on personal motorized vehicles will increase shortly.

There are also concerns related to the discrepancy in the use of low carbon modes of transport by society’s different socio-economic groups. The existing non-motorized transport and public transport users are the groups of people who do not have access or affordability to the personal motorized modes of transport. Therefore, achieving sustainable mobility targets in Indian cities requires retain, shift and improve approach.

Retain the existing users of low carbon modes of transport by providing competitive services, shifting the potential travel demand to the low carbon modes, and improving the technology to reduce motorized modes’ per kilometers emission factors.

A greater challenge also lies with the development pattern and urbanization levels of Indian cities. The research conducted by Dr. Deepty Jain (Assistant Professor, TERI School of Advanced Studies) shows that as India’s districts will continue to urbanize and attract secondary and tertiary sector employment, the travel intensity is likely to increase.

Therefore, there is a need to address the wider challenge of development patterns and infrastructure providers to effectively reduce the increasing travel demand and meet the travel demand. It includes concentrating development within existing urban centers, encouraging complementary land use functions, and integrating non-motorized and public transport infrastructure. The choice of strategy, however, will depend on the existing and planned development in the districts.

National Urban Transport Policy highlights the need to develop public transport and non-motorized transport infrastructure in Indian cities. This can pave a long way towards addressing the mobility needs effectively and efficiently. In the past 5 – 7 years, various projects have been designed and implemented to encourage public transport and non-motorized transport system under Smart Cities Mission. This includes developing smart bus stops, implementing common fare cards, and deploying intelligent transport systems for effective fleet management.

Implementation of pedestrian and bicyclist accentuated traffic signals in Indore, development of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure in cities like Belgavi, Udaipur, Guwahati, and bicycle pods and public information systems Devanagere are few examples of non-motorized transport infrastructure development. Various services like Bla Bla car and Ola car-pool have established an easy-to-use carol mechanism that reduces per kind greenhouse gas emissions. The per kilometerinterventions from both the public and private sector can help Indian cities to retain and reduce the impact of transport on the environment.

Both the development pattern of cities and infrastructure development can help in paving a sustainable behavior of the citizens. However, the policy and infrastructure related disruptions along with natural disruptions like extreme weather events, catastrophic events and climate change are likely to alter the behavior in short- and long-term. This can affect the attainment of sustainability goals that are being targeted through various strategies over a period of intervention.

The existing COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire world and all the sectors within a short time span. Most accepted strategies towards restraining the spread of coronavirus in wider public are sanitization of surfaces and hands, maintaining social distances and staying at home as far as possible. To combat the situation, lockdown has been implemented in India since 25th March 2020, suspending all the sectors from operation.

The third phase of lockdown had allowed normal bus movement operation with 50% capacity in green zones. Thereafter through various unlock phases, all the sectors were allowed to operate under the issued guidelines. This had resulted in the need for people to access work and healthcare-related opportunities, therefore, derived travel demand.

Given the restricted operation of the public transport system and aggregated network in Indian cities and the potential risks of exposure to coronavirus in shared spaces, the existing public, and para-transit network usage is questionable. The COVID-19 situation is likely to push the existing public and para-transit system users to the personal motorized modes, affecting the sustainable mobility goals.

As per Census 2011 data on other workers, 20% to 50% of the total work trips are met by public transport (bus and rail-based system), and para-transit system (autos/taxis/tempos) cities have more than 5 million population. These are the potential trips under threat in the current situation. Therefore, the urban local bodies and public transport operators need to address the growing challenge from three perspectives – operational capacity, risk perception to exposure, and potential shift from the public transport system.

Various studies worldwide show a reduction in travel demand, usage of the public transport system, and an increase in non-motorized transport systems since the lockdown has been uplifted. Despite its potential risks, the change in mobility pattern exhibits promising opportunities towards continuing the path of sustainable mobility.

Within 5 million-plus population cities, 20% to 40% of the paratransit and 30% to 50% of the bus trips for work purposes is shorter than 5 km. This segment of the trips is the potential public and para-transit trips that can be shifted to bicycles. The positive examples from Indian cities include an increase in bicycles’ usage and sales in the past 6 – 7 months and the development of bicycle infrastructure in Gurugram, Bangalore, and Delhi.

Combined infrastructure development strategy to support bicycle trips in the cities and public transport system operation with specific guidelines can effectively and efficiently support the existing travel demand.

Further to this, there is a need to devise a solution to the mobility needs in the short- and long-term during and after COVID-19 situations. Therefore, the key questions shall include the likely change in travel patterns, change inaccessibility, and affordability to meet travel demand and risk of exposure to coronavirus in shared spaces.

Sustainable Mobility amid COVID-19 Pandemic: Potential Risks and Opportunities
Sustainable Mobility amid COVID-19 Pandemic: Potential Risks and Opportunities

Sustainable Mobility amid the COVID-19 Pandemic is indispensable if we have to come even remotely close to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)-11 set by the United Nation.

India currently neither has adequate infrastructure in place nor a population that is willing to amend its ways of transport.

The west had adopted the NMT and PT even before the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore has the means available to make the transition relatively smother to cities in developing countries including the Indian cities. 

India has a long way to go when it comes to developing an impeccable public transport a system which can facilitate transformation towards people depending on PT to commute instead of their personal vehicles.

Though during the COVID-19 lockdown, people’s interest in NMT has witnessed a rise but the lack of infrastructure such as separate cycle tracks etc. among other reasons are likely to adversely affect this rise.

India can overcome all these challenges with the help of dedicated government policies and a people-government partnership at a more committed level.

The three major steps in the quest for sustainable mobility are:

•        Need to understand the change in travel patterns

•        Need to understand and model the risks associated with exposure to Coronavirus while using aggregated networks

•        Determine vulnerabilities and its association with age, gender, and incomes

If India does understand the nuances of what we have and how it can be used to get what we need, the future where India will have a sustainable mobility system in place much like its western counterparts can certainly be the reality that would benefit over a billion people. 

The above are the event excerpts of the special talk by Dr Deepty Jain on Sustainable Mobility amid COVID-19 Pandemic: Potential Risks and Opportunities

YouTube Video for Sustainable Mobility Amid COVID-19 Pandemic: Potential Risks and Opportunities

Picture Credits: Construction Week India