2016 has been an amazing year for mobility. Uber, Google, GM, Peugeot, BMW, VW Group, Tesla, Ford and even apple and Intel have all been experimenting with driverless cars and have edged us closer to an autonomous transport reality. 

Some cities like Dubai (1) have already provisioned their transport plans around the future of autonomous cars and micro-buses while several others cities in Germany, US, Netherlands, Spain, France etc. have become open to allow their cities as live laboratories for assessing the technical, behavioral and legal aspects of autonomous vehicles.

My pick of the lot, however, has been the realization by Translink of Vancouver BC, that non-motorized transport, ride hailing and mass transit are indeed complimentary to each other. Vancouver BC and several American cities have started to realize that they can no longer ignore taxi aggregators or such new forms of popular mobility solutions while attempting to build an efficient multimodal network for the city (2).

The excitement around seeing autonomous cars rule our roads in as little as half a decade has fueled many utopian views. The assumption is that autonomous cars will relieve us from driving duties at the least, help us share such cars with many more people, and positively earn us some taxi revenues while at it. The utopia would have such cars work in sync, ending road accidents, pollution and congestion.

Cars, although, remain a versatile personal vehicle, they also are the most inefficient use of limited road space, irrespective of computers driving them! Mass urban transport options like Metro still shift thousands of passengers at unparalleled speeds while relieving precious space on roads, buses move up to 60 times more passengers, bicycles take a fraction of a typical road lane and even taxi aggregators bring last mile connectivity. Multiple modes or multimodal transport is key to keeping our cities efficiently mobile.

While money is gushing towards designing, integrating and mainstreaming autonomous cars, we remain stuck in a world with limited technological innovations for mass and public transport, archaic transport agencies and little to no integration of these multiple modes.

As more autonomous modes come to our transport networks, judicious use of various types of transport modes, for safety, comfort, efficiency, economy and speed will decide the real benefits of such autonomy in making our commutes better.

The article argues that while autonomous cars and buses are nigh, managing multimodality in its broadest interpretation is and will remain fundamental to efficient mobility in our cities.

What is multimodal and why it is important?

Multimodal approach to transport is the acknowledgement of the fact that typical commuter trips are a combination of multiple modes, each serving a unique function and delivering a unique value. Efficiency will result if one were to use the best modes for the purpose intended in their best possible combinations.

Let us illustrate this point- A long distance commuter is better off taking a metro/rail option for point to point journeys along mass transport corridors, while bus will be a better option for shorter or off mass transit destinations. Last mile is best covered on bicycles, short haul taxis/ride hailing/3-wheelers or on foot.

However, metro used for short hauls (e.g. crowded zone-1 in London) or buses for long hauls defeat the purpose of these very modes. Ride hailing taxis, arguably, are best used in combination with mass transport for long distance trips but we do see trips exclusively on taxis for long journeys, leading to roadblocks and loss of efficiency for users and operators alike (3). Multimodal transport is not just the most logical thing to do, it is also the most desirable.

  1. Infrastructure - E.g. multimodal stations, diverse modes, changeovers etc.
  2. Integrated operations and payment facilities- E.g. unified tickets, complementing routes, unified transport company etc.
  3. Information availability and dissemination

Infrastructure involves massive capital expenditure and takes years to build/retrofit. Future infrastructure development should consider the diversity of modes E.g. train stations with integrated platforms for metro, bus and taxi.

Integration of transport services and companies running them is an institutional challenge. That said, at least the payment issue has become history with contactless cards that obviate transport cards.

Interestingly, if information is available, it is neither as costly as building infrastructure nor as administratively challenging as merging agencies and ticketing to simply integrate such information and develop useful user inferences from it.

What multimodal means for India, Indonesia and other emerging market countries?

Emerging market economies have rapidly growing cities. This results in cities often overshooting the administrative limits and the transport services therein. The organic growth of cities creates unplannable pressures on transport corridors.

Data availability is also a challenge in such cities. Where they do, there lie apprehensions on data sharing as agencies fear loss of ridership revenues to competition from other modes.

Incidentally, the author was part of a unique panel during ‘Connect Karo 2016’ where he was the neutral party between public bus service providers on one side and private bus aggregators on the others. Interestingly, both sides together were still too short in meeting the demand for public transport. Their routes, albeit competing for the premium segments like airport shuttles, could very well have had a cooperative competition if all options were revealed to the customers.

Sharing of data, can only help higher number of rides – as the segment for public/shared/taxi rides itself grows - and their judicious distribution. Last mile connectivity and overall reach of public transport will improve and city economies will gain.

Conclusion: A user journey in a smart and multimodal world

As we progress towards multimodality using smart technologies like TRAFI a typical user, Ms. X’s average day will probably look like this:

As Ms. X steps out of her home, she gets alerted on bad service on her usual bus to her usual metro station by her multimodal app. She picks the option of taking a ride, pre-booked for her on a shared taxi service to a Sky Rail stop. As she disembarks from her ride, she gets detailed walking instructions to the right platform for boarding the Sky Rail. One inside, she gets an accurate estimated time of arrival to a changeover stop to shift to a rapid metro, including the internal walking directions. As metro takes her to a stop near her office options of bus (cheap but slow) and motorbike taxi (faster and at the same price) are revealed. She obviously, picks the motorbike ride which waits for her, ready at the exact metro station exit suggested by her app…

About the author: Rajarshi Rakesh Sahai is a Strategy consultant with specialization in Smart Cities. He is the India Director and Country Manager for TRAFI Ltd. 



(2) “TransLink’s new CEO says Vancouver’s public transportation system should embrace ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft because they can strengthen transit.

“We have to find ways to embrace this change,” said Kevin Desmond, who was hired from Seattle in February to take over the Lower Mainland’s transportation agency. He noted that ride-hailing services are hugely popular with the public, and transit systems “need to find out a way to participate in that and make it complementary.”

Mr. Desmond, who was speaking at a Vancouver Board of Trade event, said a recent paper from the American Public Transportation Association concluded that services such as Uber and Lyft support public transit by giving people another option for getting to bus and rail lines more easily”. More here-

(3) The most profit a taxi makes is in the first kilometre of journey, given the ‘minimum fare’ cliff. As the journey gets longer, this gain gets distributed and diluted, per KM basis.