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Urban transportation: trends, challenges and opportunities

Transportation management is a major part of urban planning and development. Urban areas worldwide are rapidly expanding and so is the urban population. Urban planning majorly impacts how much a city supports business growth, and of which transportation management has a key role to play. City transportation influences per capita expenditure and revenues to a large extent and thus a country’s GDP. If examples are to be drawn from my home country, Mumbai owes much of its business capital status to a well-laid out public transportation management. And Bangalore is known for its inability of city planning to cope with a sudden and prolific growth of IT establishments. Typical man-hours spent in traffic in a day, traffic hazards and the pollution levels, following which the livability depend on traffic modes and sizes in the city; additionally the pride value of a city and the country lies with traffic behavior along with other factors.

June 2016
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Executive Summary

Urban travel demand has been continuously growing in both developed and developing countries. Overall population growth and increasing urbanization have led to rapid growth of large cities, which are crippled by the sudden rise in travel demand. The supply of transport infrastructure and services, by comparison, has lagged far behind demand. Land prices and rental rates also escalate in city centers, which force establishments and housing to move to the city peripherals and thus further increasing everyday commuting. Certain developed countries have been quite successful in keeping traffic demands in checks. Some policies also appear as unfriendly towards private vehicle ownership/usage:

1. Some developed countries do not attempt to decongest city centers. High rise buildings are allowed in every part of the city, so that establishments and residential properties are available within city limits. This is in sharp contrast to the Indian scenario. In India, a typical (Floor space index) FSI of 1.5 is imposed in cities, as against other Asian countries that allow an FSI of 5 to 15.

2. A high premium is imposed on owning and using private vehicles within city centers, in terms of congestion charges. This may include vehicle registration, excise duty, oil duty, toll prices, parking levies and also charges based on carbon emissions, such as in London.

3. High fuel prices, high ownership and maintenance prices of private vehicles, combined with buyer-unfriendly automobile industry discourage private vehicle ownerships.

4. Several cities provide totally free public transport. Hasselt (Belgium) had free public transportation until recently. A zero-fare public transport has been recently implemented in Estionian capital Tallin since January 2013. An efficient feeder network and proper integration of multi-modal traffic encourage public transport utilization.

Many of the above are a distant reality in developing countries, where unorganized sector of public transport, such as auto rickshaws, tumtums, non-motorized cycle rickshaws, shared private vehicles, chartered travel also vie in the business.  However it is predicted that by the mid-century Asia and Africa will peak in urbanization with 54% of Asia and 20% of Africa living in urban areas and a no less of 70% worldwide. The table below is extracted from a UN report which gives an insight into future urban population growth and thus can be a proportional estimate of urban traffic demand.

Key issues

Existing problems in urban transportation planning and management are many. A few from the Indian transport sector are listed below.

1. Billions of man hours are lost in a “stuck in traffic” excuse.  As an example, in two decades between 1981 to 2001, the population  of  six major metropolises in India increased by about 1.9 times, whereas the number of motor vehicles went up by over 7.75  times during the same period.

2. The cost of travel has increased considerably, especially for the economically lower class. Non-motorized modes such as cycling and walking have become non-existent or extremely risky, since there is no right of way for these modes. Lower rents and land prices led to extended city peripheries that increase travel distances, thereby forbidding non-motorized modes.

3. Number of road accidents has increased from 160,000 in 1981 to 390,000 in 2001; of which fatalities increased from 28,400 to 80,000.

4. Increased use of private vehicles and lack of strict and periodic emission checks and control have led to increased carbon emissions and noise pollution. This results inunhealthy air quality and thus public health impairment.

5. Road infrastructure is of poor quality and hence already diminishing non-renewable petroleum resources are exhausted in a staggering manner.

6. Vehicle insurance, maintenance, operational and acquisition costs for the millionsof licensed drivers who own millions of vehicles have escalated.

7. Parking space/lot congestion is ubiquitous everywhere.

Urban transportation trends

Urban travel demand has to be understood from the context of differentiated urban growth. To some extent, capacity increase is possible by slight modifications with little or no investments such as signaling changes, widening of roads and extricating encroachments. But what works for one city may not work for the other, though some valuable lessons can be learned. Despite investments in road infrastructure, land use and transport planning and development, several cities face problems of heavy influx, congestion, traffic accidents, and air and noise pollution. Hence a unified approach to integrate multi-modes of traffic and efficient feeder network must be adopted, in addition to inculcating public discipline. Recent trend in many cities in India and the rest of the World is heavy investments into railways. Several metro, light rail transit (LRT) and monorail projects have been initiated, which is strategically a new approach to urban transportation management. Railways for urban transportation management generate public attention and interest for the following reasons:

1. Railways are a mass transit system and hence it is more efficient than roadways in meeting higher land based traffic capacity demands.

2. Railways are highly capital intensive when compared to other modes. So project planning has to be immaculate and has to be exercised with utmost caution. Any time loss leads to inconveniencing existing public facilities and cost appreciation.

3. Railway transportation requires a very long time planning and takes years to design, develop, build infrastructure and execute. And the route has to be planned in such a way that it caters to clearing bottlenecks while simultaneously causing minimum impacts to existing structures.

4. If there is one, urban railway transportation should be the best possible public-private partnership. Huge funding requirements necessitate Government investments and high technology and rapid execution necessitate private involvement.

5. A multitude of planning, engineering, operations and management activities are required in urban railway transportation. Hence a consortium of planners, engineers, infrastructure developers, suppliers, maintenance and management gurus team up in each project. There are only a hand-countable number of players in each domain and they provide transportation solutions to all regions across the continents. This sort of consortium operations is a radical shift from a “Multi-national” company (which everyone is used to these days) mode, to a “Cross-national” or an “Intra-national” or a genuine “Inter-national” focus. Certainly opportunities to learn from different cultural settings proliferate and hence a quality excellence is hoped for.

6. All such projects are highly resource and time sensitive, by and large managed with huge (Government) public funding. There could also be impending legal complications; in-spite, private players are expected to deliver on time with strict conformance to quality specifications, as every project is a major business opportunity for the private players.

7. It is been a long time that we witness large scale engineering and technological projects that directly impact the general public; other than in real estate, which is miniscule compared to transportation investments. It is happening right away, not only in India, but all over the world.

8. One might also not expect huge infrastructural investments during a recession period. But a major number of public transportation projects kicked off during the peak downturn years of 2007-09. Clearly it is an indication of a global strategic shift to energy conservation and to saving depleting oil reserves for the future.

In India, several initiatives on land use management and road transport planning are underway in many cities. Numerous railways based urban transportation projects are also being planned and executed. Three railway technologies for urban transportation are most popularly implemented all over the world. They are metro railways, light rail transit (LRT) systems and monorail; each has distinct features and capabilities.

Few major metro projects in India that are in various stages of progress areDelhi metro, Chennai Metro, Kolkata Metro, Mumbai Metro, Bangalore Metro, Jaipur Metro, Kochi Metro, Hyderabad Metro, Gurgaon Metro and Navi Mumbai Metro, Ahmedabad &Gandhinagar, Bhopal,Chandigarh, Indore, Kanpur, Lucknow, Ludhiana, Nagpur, Patna, Pune, Surat and Guwahati. LRT systems are underway in Bangalore Light Rail Transit (LRT), Kolkata and New Delhi. Monorails are proposed or being constructed in Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, Indore, Kolkata, Kozhikode, Navi Mumbai, Patna, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Madurai, Tiruchirappalli and Coimbatore.

Worldwide 139 metro projects and 162 light rail transit projects are underway, with the highest number of projects in Europe, followed by Asia, Americas, Australasia and Africa.  One of the highly successful urban transportation systems is TransMilenio Project in Bogota, Columbia, with a bus rapid transit system, bicycle paths, improved pedestrian facilities, and significant restrictions on private car use. The results are impressive reductions in air pollution, roadway congestion, and traffic accidents.In general, public transportation is not meant for generating revenues; fares are usually fixed in such a way that just the operational expenses are met. But Dubai Metro and Delhi Metro seemed to have turned the tables, by generating profits over and above the operational expenses. Hence across the continents, one may not be alone in being (momentarily) inconvenienced by the metro construction in Indian cities or some of the constructional mishaps. It is finally hoped for a better class of transport services with less everyday congestion in the cities we live and thereby save the oil reserves.


The line between developed and developing nations may not be thin. But social awareness towards ethical behavior and public discipline - individually and collectively helps a lot. Apart from social values that one may attach with one’s city or country, there is also much to contribute at a professional level. Opportunities abound, as strategists, planners, engineers, traffic modelers, software developers, marketing, legal and finance professionals have a big stake in such ventures, not only in India, but in the rest of the world. One has to acquire the right qualifications and skills to take up the field.

This article was published in Technomic Review, our Indian edition created in partnership with the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.

Sundaravalli Narayanaswami
Assistant Professor, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad