Better planning of cities, already facing rapid urbanisation, will be critical to this

As India surpasses China to become the most populous nation in the world, estimated at  142.86 crore, its burgeoning cities burdened with rapid urbanisation urgently need prioritisation of sustainable transportation.

With India gradually but steadily progressing towards an e-mobility future, better planning of cities that include building sustainable and adequate transport systems and shared mobility platforms, will be critical to address the challenges of rising air pollution and carbon emissions from vehicular traffic, as well as congestion.

Rapid urbanisation in India

India is the second largest urban system in the world with almost 11 per cent of the total global urban population living in Indian cities, according to a NITI Aayog report. It further states that in absolute numbers, India’s urban population is more than highly urbanised countries/regions across the globe. It has reached a turning point in its journey of economic transformation wherein half of the country would be 'urban' in a few decades.

By 2035, 675 million people, nearly 43.2 per cent, will be living in Indian cities, the second highest behind China’s one billion. Even at the current urbanisation levels, India’s urban mobility solutions are not adequate to ensure cleaner and convenient mobility. Now is the time for India to reimagine urban mobility and develop programmes and policies that integrate several solutions such as growth in transport electrification, public transit systems, and city planning that promotes non-fuel based mobility like cycling and walking.

Fig 1 - Commuters lean out of an overcrowded local train on the day of Railway Recruitment Board Examination (RRB), in Patna, Bihar. (Image: PTI)

Amit Bhatt, Managing Director, International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) said although India has overtaken China to become the world's most populous country, its level of urbanisation remains lower than that of China.

"As a result, India must prioritise the development of sustainable transportation as the foundation for its urban infrastructure. This would entail giving priority to walking, cycling and zero-emission transport options as key strategies for creating sustainable infrastructure," Bhatt said.

The increase in urban sprawl, lack of proper public public transport and heavy dependency on the usage of private automobiles has caused high levels of air pollution.

Around eight per cent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in India are from the transport sector, studies estimate.

A September 2018 Niti Aayog report said India has 1.2 buses per 1,000 people, below developing nation benchmarks, with a vast disparity between states. Only 63 of 458 Indian cities, of more than 100,000 citizens, have a formal city bus system, it stated.

According to The Guardian, India has one of the world's fastest-growing economies in the world, and recently overtook the UK as the fifth-largest.

"As India surpasses China to become the world's most populated country, the pressures on its natural resources, food security and energy demands will be unprecedented. Urban migration is also at its highest with nearly a fourth of its population already in urban areas.

"Better planning of cities will be critical, which includes building sustainable transport systems. As India progresses towards an e-mobility future, it must ensure greater focus on sustainable public transport, shared mobility, and other solutions that decongest our cities, reduce air pollution and contribute to climate action,” said Madhav Pai, CEO, WRI India.

Reimagining urban mobility: The journey so far 

Launched in 2006, India's National Urban Transport Policy aims to promote sustainable and equitable mobility in urban areas and address the challenges of rapid urbanisation, traffic congestion, and environmental degradation through a holistic and integrated approach to urban transport planning and management.

India has also launched the 'Smart Cities Mission' in 2015 that aims to develop 100 smart cities across the country having sustainable transport systems, including dedicated cycle tracks, pedestrian pathways, and public transport systems and promote sustainable and electric transport systems.

Fig 2 - Delhi’s Metro Rail is among the largest in the world. India needs more sustainable transport options like metros, electric buses, shared mobility to decarbonise transport

Another Niti Aayog report says India is uniquely positioned to deploy electric vehicles at scale, leapfrogging traditional mobility models that perpetuate congestion, air pollution and oil import dependence while driving down the costs of batteries through economies of scale even faster than the rate at which current projections anticipate.

The Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid) Electric Vehicles in India (FAME India) scheme was launched in 2015 to promote the adoption of EVs. The scheme provides financial incentives to EV buyers, such as upfront discounts and tax exemptions.

It said if FAME II and other measures are successful, India could realise EV sales penetration of 30 per cent of private cars, 70 per cent of commercial cars, 40 per cent of buses and 80 per cent of two and three-wheelers by 2030.

If India were to reach this EV sales penetration by 2030, it will cumulatively save 474 million tonnes of oil equivalent over their lifetime, worth Rs 1,521 thousand crores. This would result in net reduction of 14 Exajoules of energy and 846 million tonnes of CO2 emissions over the deployed vehicles’ lifetime, the report said.