Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'Covid-19 has renewed focus on sustainable cities': Ola think tank

There will be growing emphasis on electric mobility, especially for two and three-wheelers, says Carson Dalton, senior director at Ola Mobility Institute

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Jun 19, 2020 04:13:16 PM IST
Updated: Jun 19, 2020 04:26:32 PM IST

'Covid-19 has renewed focus on sustainable cities': Ola think tank


The Covid-19 pandemic could boost public-private partnerships on building smart and sustainable cities. One outcome could be rapid adoption of electric vehicles in India. This will trigger new business models including battery swapping technology and battery charging, Dalton said in an interview with Forbes India. Edited excerpts:

Q. What will transportation look like in the post-Covid-19 world in India, in the medium and long term?

Covid-19 has severely impacted the transportation industry as lockdown, social distancing norms and changing consumer behaviour has resulted in a decline in travel demand and ridership across various modes of transportation by 80-90 percent globally. Travel demand is expected to be subdued in the short to medium term, until a vaccine for Covid-19 is found, and this is critical to ensure 100 percent commuter confidence in transportation systems barring personal transportation.

The post-Covid world will see a rapid shift towards clean energy transportation as the world has observed some fragile flora and fauna ecosystems spring back to life due to reduced emissions during the lockdowns. Technologies like drone-based transportation and delivery that were earlier thought to be years away from adoption are seeing an increased interest in commercialisation, with the government now permitting pilot projects. Non-motorised transport such as cycling and walking could see increased adoption if cities build the necessary infrastructure for the same. Overall, the focus will shift from moving vehicles to moving people safely and sustainably.

Q. What kind of commute options will people prefer? Why?

India has low per capita car ownership (23/1000 people) compared with other major economies, and two-wheeler ownership of 128/1000 people. The economic impact of the pandemic will see consumers avoid discretionary spending towards buying a personal vehicle, making preference for shared mobility stronger.

While personal vehicles will remain the most preferred mode during Covid-19, for those who don’t own vehicles the preference will be towards low-occupancy shared mobility options such as bike/ car rentals, cabs, bike taxis and auto-rickshaws with public transport being the least preferred mode. The choice of commute will be mostly driven by perception of safety, trust factor in the services, minimising proximity to other commuters and affordability. This will be particularly true for the middle class and salaried population, for people with lower income levels, affordability would continue to remain the primary factor despite Covid.

Q. What will happen to public transport, especially when a majority of users can’t afford to purchase private vehicles?

According to census 2011 data on work trips, more than 20 percent of office trips are completed through public transportation. Since 2011, the public transportation landscape especially in urban areas has seen increased adoption due to metro rail, though the number of buses has remained constant in most cities.

Public transport will therefore continue to be a lifeline for cities during Covid-19 and post-Covid. Due to limited supply of buses and restrictions on the number of passengers to ensure social distancing, the total serviceable commuters per day has come down for buses. With metro rail not in operation, the problem of public transport supply has been compounded. As the demand grows during ‘unlock’, various strategies such as dynamic route allocation, real-time occupancy monitoring and augmentation of supply would be required to optimise available capacity. 

The state road transport corporations were reeling under financial losses even before Covid-19, and reduced ridership will make it difficult to sustain them financially without the government’s support due to fixed overheads. Innovative financing mechanisms need to be adopted to ensure financial sustainability of public transportation during Covid and to continue providing a safe service.

Service providers have introduced new safety measures and operating protocols like limiting passenger capacity, mandatory masks, regular fumigation, digital payments, temperature checks, cleaning after every ride and technology-based measures like selfie authentication. With lockdown easing in India, there has been a steady rise in mobility demand. We’re seeing a steady but slow pick-up in demand for ride-hailing and public transport services over the last few weeks.

Q. Within cities and towns, will new models of ride-hailing emerge that can be part of the solution?

App-based two wheelers, self-drive vehicles may see a spike in demand for long term rentals, especially in tier II and tier III Indian cities, which have high dependence on personal vehicles due to insufficient public transport. Specialised category services via business to business partnerships and public-private partnerships are likely to emerge for corporate travel as offices resume.

For instance, in Sydney, Ola has launched Ola Pro, a new service category catering to needs of the people who require a super-sanitised ride-share option for travel during the Covid-19 pandemic. New business models like Ola emergency for medical and health related travel have emerged during the lockdown to provide safe transport to and from hospitals. 

The pandemic itself has renewed the focus on building sustainable and resilient cities. An outcome of this will be a growing emphasis on electric mobility, therefore penetration of electric vehicles as a percentage of the fleet of shared mobility services will increase, especially for two and three-wheelers. Rapid adoption of EVs in India will trigger new business models including battery swapping technology and battery charging.

Q. What can be done to ensure that, for example, when an infected person uses a scooter, the same scooter isn’t shared with other users?

To minimise transmission, operators need to adhere to the safety protocols mandated by the government and the administration including regular cleaning of the vehicles, wearing masks and self-authentication through apps such as Aarogya Setu. Undertaking preventive measures such as regular sanitisation and cleaning of common surfaces like the handle, inner handle and seat should be undertaken to ensure vehicle safety.

Additionally, if a user who has been detected with Covid is reported, the service providers should be able to trace the vehicle and de-notify the vehicle from the platform along with tracing other users of the vehicle. Further, effective communication and awareness strategies should also be deployed through text messages, alerts and public recordings for users.

Q. What will be the role of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) in all of this?

Covid-19 has accelerated the adoption of technology like never before. AI/ML was being used to improve operational efficiency, improving customer experience, predictive maintenance and improving road/ride safety. Covid-19 has added a new dimension of health into mobility business models and IoT, AI/ML technologies will enable service providers to ensure safety related to health. 

Ola has launched ‘10 Steps to a Safer Ride’ for driver-partners and customers as services resume across the country. A face recognition based selfie authentication mechanism has been put in place to ensure drivers are wearing masks and routing of cabs is being done to avoid containment zones, technology is being used to ensure trips are not offered to those residing in containment zones. 

AI can be used to estimate the risk of contamination of a vehicle or its occupants real time based on the routes, the risk profile of the person who has rented the vehicle through integration with Aarogya Setu app and suggest vehicle cleaning or fumigation schedules to minimise the risk.

In public transportation, AI can assist in contact tracing, monitoring vehicle occupancy, dynamic vehicle routing and crowd management. Additionally, camera based technologies can be used to screen passengers at bus stations, metro stations and better enforce social distancing. However, for effective application of AI/ML, robust public-private partnerships are needed. This is to ensure real-time, data exchange on containment zones, risk-profile of persons through Aarogya Setu, providing data on commuters to government for contact tracing and information on new guidelines issued from time to time.

Q. What new infrastructure will cities have to deploy to make transportation safe in a world with Covid-19?

As India moves from lockdown to unlock, there is a requirement of new infrastructure, physical and digital, that would enable safe transportation. Cities can become smart with the use of intelligent transport services such as smart signals, crowd mitigation or congestion management systems, smart parking measures and so on.

Data-based mobility governance of cities and mobility services will be the new normal and adoption of technology will enable better integration between mobility services to provide reliable transportation.

Urban development authorities would need to invest more in non-motorised transport such as cycling tracks and footpaths. Bus stops and metro stations need to provide additional infrastructure such as sanitiser dispensers, electronic boards for real-time information, markings for social distancing and so on. Additionally, dedicated road-side curb spaces and parking spaces for taxis and auto-rickshaws will enable better implementation of social distancing norms.