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Capturing India’s Mobility Opportunity: RMI’s Urban Mobility Lab

Walking on the Tilak Road in Pune, one of the busiest streets in the ninth-largest metropolis of India, we were engulfed by diesel exhaust. An otherwise beautiful day was clouded by thick smoke from the tailpipe of a city bus, adding to the already polluted air. Young children crossed the road in front of us, unsuccessfully trying to avoid the poisonous fumes by covering their faces. The experience furthered our conviction and strengthened our resolve to deploy clean transportation solutions across Indian cities through our Urban Mobility Lab initiative, which aims to integrate and demonstrate clean, connected, and shared mobility solutions in urban India.

India stands at a unique juncture of urban transformation that rests significantly on mobility design in its cities. With nearly 600 million people expected to live in Indian cities by 2030, the demand for mobility will be unprecedented both for passenger and goods transport. Private vehicle ownership grew fivefold to 200 million between 2000 and 2016. Road accidents touched nearly a half-million in 2016, resulting in over 150,000 fatalities. Congestion is slowing average road speeds in cities to 20 kilometers per hour or less. And public health issues are a growing concern in India, home to 14 of the world’s 15 most-polluted cities in 2018, including Delhi, where four out of 10 children suffer from respiratory ailments.

These symptoms could worsen. Experts predict that urban Indians could take 500 million trips per day in 2030. How the increased demand for mobility is served has enormous implications for the quality of life that cities will provide. Fortunately, alternative pathways exist to deliver clean, shared, and connected mobility access. Three fundamental transitions can help ensure that the added demand for mobility is served by modes that support a vibrant urban environment:

  • Shifting from private vehicle ownership to shared usership
  • Shifting from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles
  • Shifting from cities designed for cars to cities designed for humans

In October 2018, Rocky Mountain Institute launched the Urban Mobility Lab in Pune to implement early, integrated examples of these three transitions to help inform the transformation at a national scale. The Urban Mobility Lab aims to establish Pune as “lighthouse city” that can test solutions on the ground and serve as a proving ground for other geographies to follow. The idea was first conceived of in India Leaps Ahead, a joint report issued by NITI Aayog—India’s premier national policy think tank—and Rocky Mountain Institute. Speaking on the future of Indian cities, NITI Aayog CEO Mr. Amitabh Kant said, “Whether you like it or not we owe it to the citizens to clean up our cities, and if we need to clean up these cities, we need to move away from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable-based economy.”

After a highly competitive grand challenge, announced by Mr. Kant, Pune was selected as the first host of the Urban Mobility Lab for its ambitious local government, demonstrated progress on key mobility and energy topics, and track record of innovation and leadership. But Pune is also facing a set of challenges perpetuated by growing private vehicle ownership.

With the fourth-highest per capita income among cities in India, Pune has 125 cars per 1,000 citizens, roughly six times the national average. And Pune is known as the “two-wheeler capital of India,” with nearly 400 two-wheelers per 1,000 citizens. While the growing demand for mobility creates challenges related to congestion, vehicular pollution, and increasing oil dependence, it also creates an opportunity to shape an integrated mobility strategy that tackles these challenges.

In October 2018, the private sector, public sector, and civil society convened in Pune in a highly collaborative setting to innovate and plan for the deployment of clean mobility projects in the city. The efforts include traffic management; nonmotorized transport innovation; deployment of electric first- and last-mile solutions; optimization of public transportation systems; data enhanced planning, booking, and payment; and urban freight efficiency.

With the support of a facilitator, teams worked to advance their ideas and received coaching and feedback from government officials and subject-matter experts to address critical barriers to deployment. The workshop supported an open dialogue and was designed to challenge assumptions, test hypotheses, and foster innovation. Pilot projects are already under development. Speaking at the event, Pune Municipal Commissioner Mr. Saurabh Rao stated, “It’s a tough challenge to remain India’s most livable city. But if we join hands and implement the solutions provided by the lab, we will be a torchbearer for urban mobility. Intensive intervention is required. I am hopeful that within three to four months we will begin implementing the solutions.”

Following the workshop, the Urban Mobility Lab is serving as an ongoing platform to provide support and guidance on financing, monitoring, evaluation, learning, and scaling. The Urban Mobility Lab is documenting key insights from the process and will scale relevant solutions through central, state, and municipal governments, as well as the private sector, to support and accelerate India’s mobility transformation.

Speaking at the valedictory session of the Urban Mobility Lab, Mr. Durga Shanker Mishra, secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, made a strong call for the scaling of solutions. “Whatever solutions have come out of this lab should move forward to create a proper ecosystem that the whole country can follow,” he said. “We will have more challenges, and we will use these inputs from the Urban Mobility Lab to guide our urban planning solutions. We look forward to creating more lighthouse cities in Maharashtra and beyond.”

Insights from the Urban Mobility Lab’s pilots will be fed back to inform state and central government policymakers about specific barriers and best practices through channels such as state transport department policies, NITI Aayog’s policy frameworks, and the Ministry of Urban Affairs’ Smart Cities Mission. This process is expected to create an important learning cycle among cities, states, the central government, and the private sector, and to help urban India transition to a new mobility future.