Urban Transport Innovations and Traffic Solutions

May 20th, 201112:03 pm @


A December 2010 report by the Forum for the Future is based on the following thesis:

“Cities need to start planning now to radically re-engineer their infrastructure to cope with much larger populations than they currently support.”

In particular, urban transportation systems need to make mass transit accessible to the urban poor, who very often live in more affordable areas far outside city limits. Satisfying the urban transport needs of cities will continue to be a significant challenge unless urban planners think outside the box and adopt alternative modes of transport.

One such alternative has emerged from Delhi. The Delhi Integrated Multi Modal Transit System Ltd. (DIMTS) and the Transport Department drafted a project report about the pod car system, or personal rapid transit (PRT), a pollution-free transport system that promises non-stop travel to a commuter’s destination. “In a pod car system, vehicles are sized for individual or small group travel, typically carrying no more than six passengers per vehicle,” explains the report. PRT pods are automated vehicles that run on a grid of custom tracks, and, in Delhi, costs approximately INR 6 (US$0.14) per kilometer. There are plans to unveil a pilot project of the PRT along the western side of Delhi. Other PRT projects – like one proposed by ULTra-Fairwood in the states of Haryana and Punjab – are also being considered in India.

The PRT is an innovative idea, but it is not without its problems. Its claims of energy efficiency are questionable. ULTra-Fairwood’s PRT system uses 25%-50% less energy than more traditional private or public modes of transportation, however, its zero emissions claim is inaccurate. These pod cars run on grid electricity, not biodiesel or solar power. A lot more work needs to be done to ensure better emissions standards. “Until we green the grid, a new electric vehicle plugged into your garage outlet becomes a coal-powered vehicle,” said Patti Prairie, CEO of Brighter Planet, to Fast Company magazine.

Another issue with the PRT system is its affordability, both for a city and for a commuter. The projected cost of a PRT system developed by Hindu Business Line in Amritsar, Punjab, will cost US$112m for just a two-mile route with seven stations. That is a significant investment for a city to make for what is essentially a pilot run of a new transportation system.

From the perspective of the commuter, especially the urban poor, the PRT fare is not cheap. The per-kilometer cost of INR 6 does not seem like a lot, but that number needs to be put into perspective. Delhi, for example, is 1,483 square kilometers, or roughly 39 kilometers in length. If a person travels even 25% of that distance (10 kilometers), then a one-way fare would amount to INR 60 – an exorbitant sum when the urban poverty line in India is defined as a daily income of INR 20 (~US$0.44).

The PRT system is an interesting idea, but it is an example of one that may not be the most practical – or scalable – solution for large urban areas. India may want to take a cue from countries in Latin America, where Colombian and Venezuelan cities have adopted a cable car system. The cable car offers a real solution to the transport issues faced by the urban poor in developing countries, as well as heads off growing traffic woes.

Reality dictates that many informal settlements and slums are established on steep hillsides, as can be seen in cities like Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro. These areas are not navigable by car, nor are they in close proximity to city bus and railway systems. Cable cars can effectively bridge that gap by making it easier for the urban poor to reach other city transportation systems.

According to the Doppelmayr/Garaventa Group, a German cable car engineering company, there are significant benefits to a cable car system. Cable cars are low emission vehicles that require less energy because they are constantly in motion. Because of the cable car’s aerial positioning, there is little space requirement for construction and it is therefore more easily integrated into a cityscape. Cable car systems offer a service that has no wait time and no traffic. It is a mode of transport that can be used by all people, including those with mobility constraints due to physical disability. And cable car systems have the potential to be equipped with a wireless connection, which would allow for direct audio/visual communication between cabins and stations.

There are cities already implementing a cable car system for greater ease of transport. In Colombia, the city of Medellin implemented Metrocable in 2006. It is a gondola lift system that connects the hillside barrios to the rest of the city. A huge advantage to Metrocable is that it is a branch of the city’s regular metro system: both services have the same management and can be used with a single fare. Caracas, Venezuela, has a similar system established with its Teleferico service.

If there are many advantages to a cable car system, why aren’t more cities adopting a cable car system? The answer may be found on two fronts. For one, the infrastructure needs of growing cities are a constant challenge for urban planners. How can they capitalize on current infrastructure and build more effective transportation systems that could relieve the burden posed by globalization and bursting populations?

On the other hand, the issue of financial investment cannot be ignored. Developing any sort of transportation system requires significant investment. In the case of a cable car system though, it does seem like the financial investment is less when compared to a project like railway development. Construction of one Metrocable route line over 1.8 kilometers, for example, was US$26m. If developing world cities like Caracas and Medellin (amongst others in Africa and Asia) were able to manage the investment, other cities tackling urban transport issues have a lot to learn about thinking outside the box, adopting alternative methods and creating new ways of mobilizing its inhabitants.

This story originally appeared in the May 2011 edition of the Searchlight South Asia newsletter created by Intellecap for the Rockefeller Foundation.

The opinions expressed on the Searchlight South Asia site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rockefeller Foundation.