In 2020, three Indian cities -- Mumbai, Bengaluru and New Delhi -- featured in the top 10 of the Tom Tom Traffic Index, which ranks urban congestion across hundreds of cities worldwide.
The index computes rankings based on the extra time a trip would take compared to its baseline uncongested metric. Notwithstanding the rankings, it needs to be asked if protracted trips and low mobility speeds are exclusively, or even disproportionately, attributable to congestion in an emerging economy like India.
Mobility patterns in developing countries cannot be neatly categorised, often differing widely from those observed in the global north. Numerous urban centres around the world witness twin troughs in mobility speeds associated with morning and evening commutes.
Indian megacities, like Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Delhi, interestingly, witness rush hours, beyond the twin troughs with only marginal improvements during the wee hours. The average speed in Delhi for instance does not exceed 30 kmph for 92 percent of the time on several of its arterial roads. Even non-metro cities like Varanasi are also slow at all times, including night times without the presence of any conspicuous traffic.
Conventional mobility discourse often assumes that traffic congestion - the excess accumulation of vehicles leading to crowding - is the primary cause for low mobility speeds.
On the contrary, research shows that Indian cities are slow primarily due to low “uncongested mobility” - constraints unrelated to vehicular congestion. These roadblocks include potholes, roadside vendors, stray dogs and cattle, public processions, or pedestrians who otherwise do not have safe, dedicated spaces.
Hence, traditional traffic management approaches such as congestion pricing, encouraging the use of non-motorised transport (NMT) and shared mobility are essential but insufficient by themselves to increase mobility speeds in India.
In India, like the world over, the road system constitutes a public good, accessible to a wide array of classes and social groups for an even wider set of purposes. Being the veritable lifeline of India’s social and economic spheres of activity, roads drive commerce, anchor social obligations, and reinforce democratic rights of passage and ownership. Thus, roads belong to all and not just motor vehicles.
However, a lack of proper management, the absence of dedicated lanes for different forms of traffic, and unsatisfactory urban planning result in low mobility speeds.
Any initiative to improve mobility speeds should, therefore, take cognisance of the ‘public good’ nature of roads and the concomitant issues around low uncongested mobility. The solutions to address the latter may differ drastically from measures taken to improve congestion.
Kolkata, for instance, perceiving cycles as roadblocks banned their usage in a bid to improve mobility speeds. While such measures could improve congestion, they are inconsistent with the social fabric that roads create. They may work in cities with well-established public transit systems, but will likely fall short of the desired effect in chronically slow cities like Varanasi which are slow on account of low uncongested mobility.
With India strongly gravitating towards a shared, connected, and electric mobility future, hyperlocal deliveries, ride-hailing, innovations in urban freight and bike taxis, shared micro-mobility solutions, among others, are expected to usher in a paradigm shift in the nature and extent of road usage.
We need solutions that foreground Indian experiences and are predicated upon our unique mobility patterns.
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To manage uncongested mobility, urban planning keeping population density and land availability in mind is essential. Implementing a better land-use policy that restricts parking access on primary roads, clearly demarcating specific areas for non-vehicular activities, making roads pothole-free, and designing well-placed traffic signals are significant first steps that can be taken.
Zurich, for instance, in an unconventional move, capped parking spaces to 1990 level. This dramatically improved street space making walking, cycling and transit use more amenable.
Efficient mobility can also be attained through better management of roads and traffic with minimal blockades. Interventions in Delhi and Mumbai at busy intersections utilised cones to demarcate pedestrian and vehicle lanes. Removing unused land space on sidewalks made the intersection more manageable, efficient and safe.
Further, smart or intelligent traffic management systems in cities like Chennai and Kochi are using AI-based algorithms to enable efficient use of road space and improve overall mobility within the city. Additionally, a grid-pattern based mobility infrastructure, as present in Chandigarh, with more main roads has shown substantial potential in enhancing mobility speeds.
Congestion represents an undoubted hindrance to urban mobility expressed through reduced traffic speeds thereby increasing the travel time. Indian roads, a true embodiment of the multi-purpose nature of public goods, need to surmount the low uncongested mobility challenge that predominates our city streets.
Urban centres through localised interventions are showing improved mobility speeds without altering the public good nature of roads. These interventions, driven by data, help capture the various determinants of urban mobility - imperative in improving city speeds. The need for speed is indeed pivotal as we look to make our cities faster and smarter!
–Yash Narain and Anish Michael are Research Associates at Ola Mobility Institute. The views expressed are personal.
(Edited by : Yashi Gupta)