STRUCTURAL ISSUES IN PROMOTING ‘NEW MOBILITY’ SOLUTIONS IN INDIA: INTERVIEW WITH RAJARSHI SAHAI, HEAD, TRAFI INDIA

Indian cities have been slower than cities like London, Singapore and Vienna in the development of ‘New Mobility’ solutions i.e. the application of technology towards promoting sustainable transport systems. We met with Rajarshi Sahai, who has been actively engaging with Cities on leading technology solutions like open data analytics, multimodal app ecosystem and innovation in urban mobility sector. Rajarshi will soon be the India Director for Public Policy and Communications for Ofo, a global leader in bikesharing systems. He was heading the India operations of Trafi, the multimodal travel planning app until recently. The interview presents his outlook on the emerging ‘New Mobility’ ecosystem in India and the role of regulators and data owners in embracing them: 

1. How is technology impacting the urban mobility patterns in Cities globally?

Globally, the pace of urban mobility sector is unprecedented, especially given that the sharing economy is being deeply benefitted from urban mobility innovation. We are seeing new trends emerge where shared, pooled and hired options, enabled by free flowing information are competing with the self-owned car, enabling users with a range of options and combinations thereof.

While real time information, combined with dissemination tools like smart mobile apps reduce the information asymmetry in use of mobility options, further innovation in integrating payments and seamless cross-connectivity of modes is reducing the final level of friction in mass use of shared and public mobility solutions. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is the ultimate level of innovation, currently, where integrated and smart mobility options, one stop payments and finally creative finance options for mobility subscriptions come together to bring the millennials back to shared and public solutions.

2. How would you categorise the various players in the ‘New Mobility’ ecosystem? Can you give us a few examples?

The key players in urban mobility innovation include:

a) Public transport agencies and authorities: This includes actual bus/mass transport operators like DMRC, BEST etc., data owners i.e. municipal authorities and/or unified metropolitan transport authorities, administrative and/or controlling interests like IT, Transport, Finance and Law departments of State/UTs and supra-state interests like Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and agencies thereof.

b) Other operators: A range of data enabled service providers like private bus systems e.g. Shuttl.com, cab hailing services like Uber, Ola etc., Cab Hire services like Meru, Mega etc., Motorbike taxis like UberMOTO, Bixi etc., Autorickshaw aggregators like Jugnoo, Ola etc. Bike share services like Ofo, Mobike, Bluegogo, Pedl etc. and several other such innovations across our cities.

c) Trip planners/Mobility as a Service providers: This includes basic trip planning information like Google transit/Apple transit to specialised trip planners like City Mapper, Moovit to Mobility as a Service providers like TRAFi, Whim etc.

3. Is India well-placed to embrace ‘New Mobility’? What are the key enablers and barriers according to you?

India is currently riding on population dynamism and rapidly improving lifestyles, buoyant businesses and scaling infrastructure. These mega-trends together imply that we have the fastest growing sizeable population of mobile technology adopters, enabled by unprecedented connectivity and the power of the youth.

As people work from a multitude of work arrangements – shared workspaces, IT parks/office clusters, home/remote offices, and informal cafes, mobility needs are increasingly diversifying, and therefore the need to find solutions at various times and for unique use cases that did not even exist in the past. Today’s population wants to move faster, better and safer than even before.

That said, the need for smart mobility in itself is not a direct reflection of the situation on the ground. While tele-connectivity has improved, our roads are more congested than ever, pace of mass transport growth is limited, data and information on public modes is often privileged thereby defeating the very purpose of public transport and open and globally accepted e-ticketing & payments are still a distant dream.

India does have a very vibrant tech and start-ups ecosystem and a clear direction to ‘digital India’ and cashless solutions. If the above bottlenecks are removed, the country can leapfrog to the top of urban mobility innovation in quick time, fuelled by its frugal innovation legacy.

4. What is the role of Governments at the National, State and City level in in promoting such innovations in urban mobility?

While much of innovation and growth in India has been driven by private sector and often ‘despite the government’, urban mobility sector – being a heavily regulated space – needs conscious support and enabling from the government and its ecosystem. 

Governments should recognise their role as not just an operator of affordable transport but also as the provider of transparent information on the running of such transport systems i.e. open data to truly enable access to such modes and promote derivation and innovation on top of such data. The role clarity here is of utmost importance- transport agencies should be focussed on their core operations while enabling innovation from actual innovators in the private sector.

There remains limited standardization on the underlying data and intelligent transport systems for running public transport. While creativity is a desired outcome, exhaustive and unprocessed data should be readily available for own-operations and for the innovators best placed to disseminate information to the users.

5. Why do you think are the key barriers faced by ‘New Mobility’ solution providers in India?

There are various factors behind the stunted growth of the sector in India.

Firstly and foremostly, the over regulated urban transport regime has often been an impediment to innovative solutions, to the extent of even curtailing the concepts like motorbike taxis in India. Regulation has struggled to keep pace with innovation while the common-law approach to innovation has rarely been pursued given the legacy of control in the sector.

Secondly, the lack of role clarity by governments and transport agencies has often made them go adrift to pursuing adventurous projects like own mobile apps which are best left to a thriving industry of innovative start-ups globally. Such adventurism has often led to failures that come at great cost to the exchequer and to the innovation climate in general.

Thirdly, and a related aspect, is of that of general mistrust and lack of ability to engage between government and private sector. This factor is further augmented in high innovation sectors like urban mobility applications and solutions as governments get to face small yet rapidly scaling start-ups than established and institutionalised businesses. Governments have been reluctant in setting up open and collaborative platforms for innovators.

Finally, the very lack of data and appropriate technologies is a factor in most transport agencies and city governments, barring few. Technology is often bought for the sake of it than with a clear idea of deliverables. E.g. I have often seen GPS tracking of buses without any thought on linking the bus-bodies to actual routes they are being allocated to, thereby making the data so achieved futile for end user consumption and overall network modelling! As ITS systems are implemented as cosmetic projects, there are very few agencies actually learning from the precision so achieved to improve their operations. In cases where data is available, the contracts and equipment have been specified without much regard to actual sharing of such data with users/innovators, wasting years on mere sharing of data with third parties.

6. How do you perceive things can change? What according to you is the role of various stakeholders in developing ‘New Mobility’ solutions for India?

Given the over-regulated nature of urban mobility sector, the change has to actually come from top.

Central government institutions like ministries – MoHUA and MoRTH – and the agencies like NITI Ayog have to set the tone by defining clear policies of standard package of IT and operations. There has to be a clarity on what construes as public data - i.e. all data relevant to the public-  and its ownership - i.e. the public right to such information, without any encumbrance or delay- and sharing protocols. A suggestive package of policies, toolkits and directives will do a great service to the sector.

City governments and public transport agencies are often locked in battles over transparency of transport operations and transport agencies’ archaic approach to allowing innovative solutions in parallel to their own operations. At the same time, cities exert undue pressures on transport agencies to run their operations, often against the fair/logical approach. As IT systems become commonplace, cities also have a duty to pass on their learning from a more mature IT and systems legacy and possibly help accelerate the people centric aspect of the IT systems. Needless to say, the clarity achieved from central government institutions will go a long way in clearing the confusion around data ownership and obligation to transparently share such data, private operation of new and innovative modes and any such issues that may arise in the future.

Private sector providers, across the world, are learning the importance of collaborating with the governments than an unregulated disruption that fuelled the growth of the sector, globally, in the initial years. As central and local governments align themselves for innovation, the private sector should learn to work in tandem with the government. This will have a long term impact on the sustainability of their operations and overall safety of users, consistency of service/information etc.

Like UITP, there are several non-profits and policy think tank actors in the urban mobility space. Their role in the above tiers of government and private sector should align with the right functions of such stakeholders. E.g. making policies from ground up at transport agencies is a futile affair and a simple assessment of systems and quick remedy of bottlenecks –say by installing a sharing server- in data sharing and promoting alternate modes is way more effective. The focus of these actors should be on bringing the cutting edge of innovation to the right stakeholders and to be willing and available to execute where lack of past experience makes the stakeholders reluctant to act.

In cases where generalist or specialist consultants are enabling innovation, they must be prepared to learn from the ever changing nature of urban mobility ecosystem and to do their best in promoting open, legacy free and flexible solutions than a set basket of solutions without context.

Finally, constant industry dialogues and learning from each other is the key for all stakeholders as the dynamism of the urban mobility sector essentially makes us all a learner than an expert.

 

 

About Mr. Rajarshi Rakesh Sahai

Mr. Rajarshi is an expert in urban mobility, smart cities, public policy and business management. He is  an experienced management consultant and country manager with skills in marketing, PR, operations, finance and leadership demonstrated over a 12 year career. His international educational background ranges from Development Planning, Urban Development, Environment & Sustainable Development, and Economics. He has additional qualifications in European Urban Studies, Internet & Communication Technologies for Development, and SIDA's International Training on Efficient Energy Use & Planning. He has an MBA from Indian School of Business and LSE in finance, strategy and public policy. Until November 2017, Rajarshi has been the head TRAFI in India for 2 years, leading its business development, marketing, operations and partnerships with government and large private sector players.