India, the world’s second-most populous country, has the opportunity to leapfrog the developed world’s 20th-century infatuation with the private car and “move directly to the mobility system of the future,” two American think tank experts suggest.
Rocky Mountain Institute Managing Director James Newcomb and Associate Clay Stranger make the assertion in a blog post following a mobility charrette in which they participated with Indian government and industry stakeholders in Old Delhi in January.
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“Three especially promising enabling conditions,” they write, create the opportunity for India to skip the era of the private car—with its insistent demands for road and parking space, and heavily polluting conventional gasoline or diesel motors—and instead adopt “a shared, connected, and electric passenger mobility system.”
Those key enabling factors include “the high share of non-motorized transport” that already exists in India, from pedal-cabs to buffalo-drawn carts, as well as “the low level of private vehicle ownership, and the prevalence of mobility services.”
Indians walk or take non-motorized transport to 70% of their destinations, the two write, “in stark contrast” to 10% of trips in the United States. The country counts only 18 cars per 1,000 citizens, compared to 800 in America.
“Preserving this share while improving urban design can make walking, biking, and public transport safer and more desirable in India,” the RMI experts state. Meanwhile, “using interoperable transportation data and user interfaces that aggregate [other transportation] modes, options, and payments to enhance the current mobility system, could establish India as a global leader in shared mobility.”
That will take a deliberate change of direction, however, as Indian consumers have snapped up private cars with the same enthusiasm as the newly prosperous citizens of other fast-developing economies. As a result, “despite the country’s very small per capita automobile fleet, traffic congestion and pollution are already serious issues,” Newcomb and Stranger note. Fully half of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, they add, citing a 2016 World Health Organization study. And importing four-fifths of the oil it needs to fuel those cars costs India US$112 billion a year.
Piyush Goyal, India’s minister of coal, mines, power, and new and renewable energy, has repeatedly voiced his ambition to switch all the country’s passenger transport to electrical energy by 2030—“the most ambitious and largest-scale national electric vehicle (EV) usage target to date,” the American authors note.
To help achieve it, the RMI experts focused their charrette “around three foundations: the systems by which people move, the vehicles and technologies they use to move, and the mobility environments that they move through.” Solutions touched on governance, infrastructure, policies and incentives, business models, and data access and availability.
One idea “would standardize batteries for electric two- and three-wheeled vehicles so that they could be swapped at a network of charging stations.” Days after the event, the authors report, “India’s minister of roads, highways, and transportation announced a scheme to remove the permitting requirements and fees for commercial electric vehicles.” A month later, India’s largest ride-hailing service announced it would soon be rolling out electric cabs in the country’s biggest cities.
“The compelling economics of commercial electric vehicles are taking hold, and supportive and coordinated policy interventions can rapidly scale electric mobility,” Stranger and Newcomb conclude. “Many challenges remain, including the need to provide reliable fast-charging infrastructure to service commercial fleets, but market forces are already favouring electric vehicles” in the world’s second-largest market for personal transportation.
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