The state of mobility in our cities and the governance and policy around it is getting more and more ironical with each passing day and each passing news item. Read this;
There are several problems with this event – the commissioning of cab fleet and the reasons behind it.
It shows the classic isolated visions of the different schemes and missions that bombard our cities every day. While the cab fleet is part of India’s mission to control pollution by shifting to electric vehicles, it is astounding that no connection has been made to the mobility scenario in the city, or to sustainable transport in general. How is having electric cabs for reducing pollution of any use, when the city has been struggling for a decent public transport system for years at end now? Making the connection between pollution and vehicles is easy, but is making the connection between increased private vehicles and volume of vehicles on road that difficult?
There are many things that a city like Nagpur needs to improve its mobility and electric cab fleet isn’t at the top of the list for sure. A few points will make it clear why;
1. Nagpur has consistently struggled with a good public bus transport system. MSRTC stopped running city bus service in 2006 citing losses. A new bus system, named Star bus was then outsourced to a private operator in 2007. Substandard performance, where Vansh Nimay India Ltd, the private operator hardly ran half of its 270-strong fleet in the city, spelled misery for the city’s 2 lakh public transport users. The Star Bus public transport which was constantly caught in controversies was changed and in its place four companies were given charge to run the city bus service in the city. The Public Transport system now runs under the title of ‘Apli Bus Pariyojana’ (Our Bus Service) It will have 195 buses of which 55 will be Ethanol fuelled Green Buses. In the new system, only 237 of the old buses owned by the NMC will be retained. The remaining buses are not fit for operation. The Comprehensive Mobility Plan of Nagpur records having an existing measly 8 buses per lakh of population, with an ambitious goal of having 50 buses per lakh population in its plan period.
A page from the SUM Net Calendar 2017, summarising the plight of the Nagpur bus transport system
In the absence of a good public bus system, a cab fleet will just probably kill any efforts for it to take off, and consequently complicate the problem of road congestion owing to more vehicles on road.
2. When it comes to intermediate public transport, it is conveniently being forgotten that Nagpur is one of the few cities in India which still has cycle rickshaws plying on its roads. Though it can be argued that people using cabs and cycle rickshaws come from different socio-economic groups, what needs to be recognised here is that cycle rickshaws as a mode of transport are completely ignored in the city, while electric cabs are being introduced to reduce pollution. Get the irony? Cycle rickshaw is a zero-carbon mode, all it needs is some will power and innovation to become the preferred mode. An excellent example is that of Ecocabs in Fazilka, which worked with the existing cycle rickshaw drivers and engaged with them on a long-term basis to come up with a modern, well-organised set up of secure livelihood for the rickshaw drivers and convenient mobility for users.
3. From a mere sustainability point of view cabs are not and never will be the best way to go. Whether they are electric or not is secondary. To prioritise ‘electric’ cabs over a robust public bus system is to strangle the public transport system altogether.
4. The larger question of equity is unresolved with these cabs, electric or not. Cab services are private endeavours and provide their services only to those who can afford to pay. Public transport services managed by the cities should be aimed to be affordable and convenient for all its citizens, more so for the urban poor. Nagpur so far hasn’t done too well in that.
World over, sustainable mobility focuses on reducing private automobile use and increasing the coverage of public transport and non-motorised transport modes. But there is also this trend of skewed understanding of mobility and sustainability issues which has led to the growth of blind, isolated technology oriented solutions attempting to solve complex mobility issues of our cities. Smart cities cannot be made only through technology. There are miles to go before that, which includes understanding the character of the city and its land use, both - historic and current, resulting mobility needs and methodical planning to retain the good practices and to scrap the unsustainable ones.