Rethinking Urban Mobility With Alternative Experiments


Smart experiments are underway in the urban mobility sector that is adopting the latest technologies and applications like never

India’s urban mobility policy and practice for the last few decades are essentially driven by big infrastructure projects to cater to its burgeoning millions and growing demands for public transport. This runs parallel (and sometimes in contrary) to urbanization trends that favour peri-urbanization, the growth of the city beyond its municipal limits with gated communities and private enclaves heavily dependent on private motorised transport. The smart city mission driving the contemporary urban discourse in India also focuses heavily on tech led mobilities. In a document titled National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence#AIFORALL, released in June 2018, NitiAyog has identified smart cities and smart mobility as two of the areas of focus for AI intervention with zero-emission vehicles as a top priority. Smart experiments are underway in the urban mobility sector that is adopting the latest technologies and applications like never. Security, safety, and surveillance are the new lexicon used to enable better performance of the urban mobility sector. For example, technologies like Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) can automate the process of traffic management and book vehicles that violate traffic rules along with video proof. This new discourse completely disregards indigenous systems of transport and mobility that have an organic presence in cities across India. These include cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, tumtums and the like. The rest of the article highlights the challenges of indigenous modes of transport, namely the auto rickshaw. It discusses the challenges to adoption of clean fuels, air pollution, affordability, and mobility. Based on a case study of a recent experiment called the ‘Namma Auto’ in Chennai and Bangalore, this article argues that there is an imminent need to rethink current mobility policy and practice in India. Our indigenous systems of mobility also serve as livelihood options for many people and serve as cheap modes of transport for major sections of the populace. They are also well adjusted to the crowded alleys and backstreets in the inner-city locations of most of the urban landscape of India. There have been many attempts to erase these indigenous modes of mobility to make way for smart and tech-led mobilities (usually favouring private vehicles) and big infrastructure projects like metro railways. Such moves adversely impact those who depend on other modes of mobility for their livelihoods usually in the lower ends of socio-economic brackets. Besides, they have escalating impacts on other dimensions of urban social life- accessibility and affordability, rupture of urban tissue and result in disconnects between people and places. 

The case of Autorickshaws

Auto-rickshaws in India are popular forms of affordable, intermediate and informal public transport (IPT). The auto rickshaw (autos) is a small hybrid motorized, three-wheeled, 3-seater (in addition to the driver), a low-floored vehicle with a contract carriage permit. In many cities (like Delhi, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad), regulation has been enforced to convert all auto rickshaws to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and recently some cities have stopped registration of two-stroke auto rickshaws to encourage the use of 4-stroke auto rickshaws. However, adoption has been slow owing to numerous issues. Auto manufacturers started manufacturing 4 stroke, CNG autos in 2011 and 2009 respectively. 

A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) study conducted in 2010 found that the transport sector contributes 15-50% of the PM10 emissions at residential and curbside locations. Among transport sector sources, the study reported diesel heavy-duty vehicles and auto-rickshaws to be the primary sources of PM10 emissions. In the auto-rickshaw sector, the PM10 emissions are caused by conventional two-stroke engine vehicles, which are known to be  major sources of PM10 emissions because of scavenging losses (loss of a portion of the intake fuel through the exhaust port without being combusted), misuse of lubricating oil, inadequate maintenance and poor performance or lack of catalytic converters (Shah and Iyer 2004). Reynolds, Grieshop, and Kandlikar (2011) found the use of clean fuels such as CNG to be ineffective in controlling PM10 emissions from conventional two-stroke auto-rickshaws. They state that PM10 emissions from two-stroke auto-rickshaws “cannot be dramatically reduced by switching to a clean fuel” alone, because of the inherent problem of scavenging losses and the release of unburned lubricating oil. These challenges indicate that reducing PM10 emissions from the auto-rickshaw sector would entail moving to an improved four-stroke engine technology instead of retrofitting existing conventional two-stroke engines.

Two other studies conducted by Civitas Consultancies Pvt. Ltd. for City Connect Foundation Chennai (CCCF) and Cistup, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, highlight key issues, enlisted below, faced by autorickshaw drivers, that could be possible deterrents in making a shift from 2 stroke to 4 stroke, CNG autos. 

  • Lack of access to credit;
  • Challenges with Permit System;
  • Socioeconomic factors – low earnings, plying empty in search of passengers;
  • Lack of social security;
  • Lack of financial incentives;
  • Lack of CNG/LPG stations;
  • Auto fares have not been revised upwards to keep pace with inflation;
  • Auto driving skills are limited;
  • Lacks recognition as a profession.

Some issues that might hamper the shift from 2/4 stroke to electric are:

  • Lack of regulatory framework for the registration of electric autos in India;
  • Limited charging stations;
  • Lack of easy access to subsidy and finance

Adoption of a sustainable auto-rickshaw system in Chennai and Bangalore

The project ‘Namma Auto’ aims at accelerating the adoption of a sustainable auto-rickshaw system currently experimented in Chennai and Bengaluru. The experiment is spearheaded by Fondazione Acra and Consortium partners. The project adopts a holistic approach to address current challenges and therefore includes multiple stakeholders that address diverse issues connected to urban mobility like those of safety for women and livelihoods. The Consortium partners involved in the project are Enviu Foundation, Women Health and Development (WHAD) and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), and supported by The European Union. The special feature of the experiment is a Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) Campaign that aims to enable the process of switching to sustainable auto-rickshaw and mobility systems in the cities of Bangalore and Chennai. The project has appointed TTC & Final Mile to develop a strategy, create, produce and implement a Behavioural Change Communication Campaign across various platforms. The BCC Campaign will play a key part of the communication strategy, preceded by in-depth market research. The campaign aims to increase demand for eco-friendly auto rickshaws in the cities of Bengaluru and Chennai. The primary focus is to:

  • Increase demand for electric autos as a feeder system (first and last mile connectivity) to metros;
  • Increase demand for eco-friendly auto rickshaws (4-stroke and electric) for consumers and conversion from two-stroke to four-stroke and ultimately to electric for drivers/owners.
  • Support the use of autos as a feeder system to metro stations in Bengaluru and Chennai, with an aim to effectively integrate auto rickshaws in the multi-modal urban transport system.

Prashant Mandke, Advisor & Communication Expert for Nama Auto project explains the underlying philosophy:      

We believe that while pursuing larger goals we must also be aware of the challenges faced by auto drivers while struggling to meet their expenses through daily earnings.  Therefore, it is important to accept that these drivers may not realise the impact on climatic aspects due to auto emissions. On similar lines, commuters too have their own concerns and challenges and may not be sensitive to the climatic impact of their choice of transport mode. Therefore, the approach will be to take these challenges into account and explore solutions while pursuing larger goals of sustainability. Hence our project aims to promote a sustainable lifestyle and poverty reduction while reducing CO2 emissions and pollution in India. Our objective is to create scalable, replicable and an integrated model of the sustainable auto rickshaw.

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