Pushing for sustainability: can technology reduce congestion?

Ashali Bhandari, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 4 April 2016

A recently published survey highlights the dismal use of public transportation in Indian cities: less than 20% of the people in 33 of the most populated 53 cities use mass transit. Mumbai, India’s financial capital, is the anomaly. The city has the highest public transport ridership (buses, trains, water transport, auto rickshaws, shared taxis, and cabs) in India with 44% of the population using mass transit and only 9% using personal vehicles to commute. Nonetheless, investment in public transportation infrastructure is negligible in the Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) Comprehensive Mobility Plan. While the plan does propose a congestion tax and multiple bus lanes, it also promotes widening over 700km of roads in the city and beginning construction of 19 flyovers and 6 elevated roads as a means to reduce overwhelming congestion.

Moovit, a mobile app, was launched in Mumbai in January 2016 to help combat congestion sustainably. Co-founders NirErez and Roy Bick developed the app in 2012 in Tel Aviv as a solution to their frustration with the lack of accurate data on public transportation. Moovit facilitates smoother commutes by using real-time data. Upon entering their origin and destination, users are provided with a plethora of routes, using public transportation, to help them navigate their trip. Moovit’s unique selling point is its ability to work with up to the moment facts and figures: the actual location of buses and trains. Thus, it can deduce whether bus routes are running slow or if trains are delayed, and informs commuters so they can plan their trips differently.

The potential for success in Mumbai is huge. By crowd sourcing real time data, the app has the ability to make public transportation more convenient and possibly increase ridership. The burgeoning popularity of apps like Uber and Ola Cabs show the demand for transit tools, especially those that promote convenience and live-tracking. By geotagging buses and trains in Mumbai, Moovit could be a panacea for residents fed up with frequent delays in public transit and subsequently resort to using private vehicles, increasing congestion and pollution levels.

While the integration of technology and transportation could be the key for sustainable urban growth, Moovit’s ability to convert car, two-wheeler, and taxi-going commuters to public transit may in the end prove difficult in Mumbai. Despite the app being available on Android and iOS for free, its success will have to overcome the vast infrastructure challenges in the city. The city’s train system is one of the densest in the world, with an average of four people crowding into one square meter, which many of Mumbai’s drivers may forgo despite the likelihood of bumper-to-bumper traffic. There is also the problem of finding “last-mile” connections to take commuters from public transport nodes to their destinations. In other countries, Moovit has tied up with taxi services such as Lyft to help fill this gap. Only time will tell if these challenges will damper Moovit’s prospects in Mumbai, even as it continues to thrive and adapt elsewhere. As of late January this year, the app has 95,000 users across Mumbai and Bangalore. Globally, the app is available in 800 cities around the world and has racked up 35 million users.

Apps like Moovit, which promote sustainable transportation and deliver better customer service, may be the technology of the future. However, changing behavioural patterns and commuting trends will require more than just technological change. For apps like Moovit to successfully convince people to switch to mass transit, governments and planning agencies must invest in better public transportation infrastructure, laying the necessarily groundwork for innovations to take hold, thrive, and hopefully stick.

Photo credit: Tobias Leeger

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