How India’s commute could be getting greener

Many of the winding streets within Europe's cities weren't designed with modern logistics needs in mind.

June 20, 2017

On any weekday morning in India’s big cities traffic jams stretch back as far as the eye can see as commuters slowly make their way into the office.

It’s not a new problem but with limited public transport and growing affluence enabling more people to buy cars, it’s getting steadily worse.

“India’s urban roads have become increasingly congested, especially with the rise of the IT sector,” says Arun Kumar Madhan, Senior Vice President of Integrated Facilities Management at JLL India. “There’s a growing workforce moving from the outskirts to the city centre and back every day and towards IT hubs from all directions, which is exacerbating problems of congestion and air pollution in metropolitan areas across the country.”

The environmental and human cost of the congestion is, however, spurring action amid plans ranging from electric vehicles (EV) to driverless mass transit pods suspended high above the city to make urban commuting significantly greener.

A better commute for employees

The government is keen to make the ambitious move over to electric vehicles; in May, an influential government think-tank released a blueprint for cleaning up the roads, with a suite of solutions aimed at electrifying all vehicles by 2030. Private companies are also working to solve the challenges. “The incentive for companies comes from two angles,” says Madhan. “We have those who see finding solutions as a business opportunity, and those who recognise that brand reputation, retaining talent and employee productivity can be improved by easing the commute.”

Bangalore, India’s largest IT hub, is straining under the weight of vastly increased traffic, and not just during traditional rush hours: Thanks to call centers that operate 24 hours a day, congestion can last through the night.

Lithium Urban Transportation provides private corporate transportation in a fleet of fully electric cars. Tesco, which has its operations and technology headquarters in the city, was its first partner back in 2015, and the start-up now names Accenture and Adobe among its clients, with plans to expand to the National Capital Region (NCR) Chennai and Pune in the near future.

While electric cars may slowly be appearing on India’s streets, they remain for now a novelty. Initial investment costs and a lack of charging stations remain key barriers to EV adoption. “It remains to be seen how many developers are ready to provide these charging stations in their IT parks,” says Madhan. “In a city like Delhi, which is already so congested, getting a charging station every five kilometres is a huge challenge.”

According to Madhan, government subsidies are needed to incentivize investment. If the plans to go fully electric within 15 years are to be realized, real estate will see requirements shift to allocate space for charging stations.

“Currently the focus is on manufacturing the vehicles and bringing down the cost, rather than providing charging facilities,” says Madhan. “The shift will take time, but the new government has picked up momentum around greener transport, and recognizes that action needs to be taken.”

One motive for developers already exists: Integrating electric vehicle chargers can contribute to LEED certification. “This kind of incentive could have an encouraging impact,” says Madhan. “The next step is outlining exactly how employing green transport can be factored into the certification process.”

Reducing volume of traffic

Electric vehicles are only part of the solution; improvements to public transportation are required to take on wider issues of congestion.

In India’s capital, the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) has trialled an electric bus to compare costs and performance with commonly used compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles. Hailed a success, the test showed significantly lower operational and maintenance costs, as well as obvious environmental benefits.

Likewise, corporate schemes ridesharing have a role to play. In 2016, Delhi start-up Shuttl launched an app-based service to ferry commuters between their homes and the city center. “There is huge chunk of people in the middle of the pyramid in the city who… do not want to settle for crowded public transport,” Shuttl cofounder Amit Singh tells India’s Economic Times.

Another startup, Ola, provides a similar service, offering private buses across key routes in a growing number of cities, including Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. However, in Bangalore, they faced issues over government permits and were not allowed to run the service.

Fresh ideas for crowded times

Some companies are thinking about the issue from a different perspective. In January 2017, the government approved a project for three companies—Ultra Global PRT, skyTran and Metrino PRT—to trial variations of a new rapid transport system. Comprised of driverless vehicles propelled my magnetic levitation or electricity, the systems resemble a futuristic monorail, with private pods suspended above the city.

Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One also met with the Indian government in 2017 to discuss a feasibility test of the famously ambitious transport technology.

Whether it’s solving the problems of terrestrial transit or bypassing the roads altogether, India’s shift to sustainable transport has multiple benefits. As the country works towards its commitments to the Paris Agreement, a switch to EVs would cut emissions by an estimated 37 percent, while reducing air pollution that’s currently responsible for over a million deaths per year. Plus, the move is set to slash the country’s $150 billion annual oil import bill by over a third.

“The transition is a long-term game and there are challenges to overcome, but the advantages are too clear and numerous to ignore,” concludes Madhan.