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Scaling up sustainability: ‘Raahgiri Day’ comes to New Delhi

Thu, 2014-07-10 20:29

Raahgiri Day, a day in which streets are closed to cars and open to pedestrians and cyclists is a time to celebrate community and human-centered mobility that is swiftly expanding throughout India. Photo by EMBARQ.

Raahgiri Day, the weekly event that closes city streets to cars to celebrate walking, biking, music-making, and socializing, has expanded beyond Gurgaon, India. The New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) together with the New Delhi Police Department has decided to stage the first Raahgiri Day in New Delhi this weekend. Beginning July 13, 2014, the inner circle of New Delhi’s Connaught Place and its various radial roads will be converted into pedestrian and cycling zones each Sunday.

This is a pivotal moment for sustainable, active transport in India’s cities. Moving from the city of Gurgaon, population 800,000 people, to New Delhi, population 22 million, is a huge leap, one that reminds us that reorienting cities around people – not cars – is achievable. This starts New Delhi on an important path towards combatting air pollution and improving public health, and all of India one step closer towards being an exemplar of sustainable urban development for other emerging economies.

Raahgiri Gurgaon a test-bed for a brighter urban future for India

New Delhi already houses 22 million people within its metropolitan region, and this number is growing annually at a rate of 4.6%. This rapid population increase, combined with shifting consumption patterns and increasing infrastructure development, have created more congested roads and compromised public spaces. Delhi is fighting air pollution that is worse than Beijing’s while simultaneously finding that less than 5% of women feel safe in the city’s public spaces. Leaders have been actively searching for innovative ways to show its residents that it is possible, with public support, to make the megacity more livable.  With Raahgiri Day, it seems to have found an answer.

Raahgiri Gurgaon, which began in November 2013, has proved that even in an increasingly motorized city, sustainable mobility is possible. Its success has sparked a shift in mindset and lifestyle among city residents, many of whom have now become proponents of active transport. A recent survey conducted by EMBARQ India in Gurgaon found that Raahgiri Day has had a positive impact on everything from non-motorized transport usage to road safety, greater engagement between local businesses and the community, and increased levels of physical activity. Furthermore, average particulate matter readings on Raahgiri Sundays in Gurgaon were 95 parts per million (ppm) less than the typical weekday in the city (99 ppm compared to 194 ppm). With Delhi’s mortality rate doubling in the past two decades due to air pollution, the potential for Raahgiri Delhi to improve public health and clean the air cannot be ignored.

Raahgiri’s success and expansion enabled by collaboration

Expanding Raahgiri to Delhi required collaboration between government and civil society. For example, the Delhi Police and NDMC conducted route reviews to evaluate potential sites in the heart of the city, while the initiative in Gurgaon was originally spearheaded by a founding group of NGOs, namely EMBARQ India, Pedal Yatri, India Cycle Service, I am Gurgaon, and Road Safety Officers. Moreover, EMBARQ India and NDMC plan on expanding Raahgiri Delhi even further, expanding routes within the city and gradually increasing attendance.

In order to help Raahgiri Day gain traction in Delhi and other Indian cities, EMBARQ India’s Amit Bhatt hosted a webinar on The Hub to share lessons learned in implementing this event in Gurgaon to inspire and instruct other cities. Experts in the fields of sustainable transport and urban development joined representatives from India and around the world – including Delhi, Gurgaon, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Pune in India as well as cities in the Netherlands, Australia, Germany and Canada – to explore what active transport and streets for people could do for their cities.

Spreading sustainable mobility internationally

Raahgiri Day is slowly moving from a Gurgaon phenomenon to a country-wide practice. As Bhatt has stated:

“This movement has sparked a ray of hope in many cities in India, which now realize that non-motorized and public transport will be the chosen modes of transport in the future. We have been hearing from passionate citizens and public agencies from different cities in the country, who have shown interest in replicating this initiative.”

The cities of Ludhiana and Navi Mumbai have already followed Gurgaon and Delhi’s lead to begin Raahgiri Days of their own. It is no longer a question of whether Raahgiri day has been a successful sustainability initiative, but simply a question of which city will join in next. 

Friday Fun: Mumbai’s Seatbelt Crew wants you to buckle up

Fri, 2014-05-30 20:20

Groups like the Seatbelt Crew combine education and entertainment to get automobile drivers on Mumbai, India’s crowded roads to buckle-up. Photo by Jerry H./Flickr.

Imagine it’s a hot, sunny day in Mumbai, India. Traffic is stopped. As you watch people passing by, suddenly a group of hijras – sometimes referred to as India’s transgender “third sex” – in matching saris file into the streets and strategically position themselves among the cars. Are they extras from a Bollywood movie? Perhaps a flash mob?

No, they are The Seatbelt Crew.

The Seatbelt Crew is a public service initiative of VithU, an emergency App, and Ogilvy and Mather, an international advertising, marketing, and public relations agency. The hijras’ goal is to remind drivers that they have a simple safety tool in their car: the seatbelt. It turns out to be a pretty effective tool as well: according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2013 Global status report on road safety, “seat-belts reduce the risk of a fatal injury by up to 50% for front seat occupants, and up to 75% for rear seat occupants.” The statistics speak for themselves, but seatbelt-wearing rates, as well as urban design techniques that can reduce the likelihood of traffic crashes in the first place, still lag in many cities. Studies have shown that an effective way to increase the use of seatbelts is to strategically combine educational social marketing efforts with legislation and law enforcement – and many countries have set out to do just that.

Countries entertain for education and impact

Popular campaigns over the decades have taken a variety of approaches, from humorous to dramatic. Some have left their mark as cultural treasures and award winning works of art. Others are remembered solely by the lives that they’ve saved.

Costa Rica combines love and the law for record change

In Costa Rica, the Por Amor campaign of 2003-2004 asked drivers, “por amor use el cinturón” (for love, use your seat belt) prompting drivers to choose to wear a seatbelt for the sake of family and friends. The campaign paralleled the introduction of a new seat belt law. The goal was to achieve a seatbelt-wearing rate of 70%. After the campaign, a survey confirmed that a combination of the campaign, seatbelt legislation, and police enforcement raised seatbelt useage by drivers from 24% to 82%, and recorded traffic fatality rates in the same period dropped by 13%.

The United States: Learning from Vince and Larry

The Crash Test Dummies, Vince and Larry, was a campaign in the United States that addressed this serious problem with a humorous approach. The dummies were so beloved that they now sit in the National Museum of American History collections as cultural icons. Their message also has had widespread impact – from 1985-1999, seat belt usage in the United States increased from 14% to 79%, saving an estimated 85,000 lives, and US$ 3.2 billion in costs to society. The Click It or Ticket campaign has continued Vince and Larry’s dedication through a new series, #3Seconds2Life, making an emotional connection between life’s special three-second moments and the time it takes to buckle up.

Europe embraces drama for impact

Language is not a barrier for understanding the dramatic campaign “Do not disconnect the line of life,” produced by the Ministry of Health and WHO in Russia. Likewise, the Sussex Safer Roads Partnership in England launched the impactful seatbelt and road safety campaign Embrace Life in 2010. The video won numerous safety awards, along with attracting 11.8 million hits on YouTube.

Meanwhile, a 2011 campaign in Afyonkarahisar, Turkey promoted that “Life has the right of way over time,” reminding watchers that the fun moments of everyday life are best enjoyed when protected by a seatbelt.  This video, combined with intensive social marketing campaigns across various mediums, local media support, and increased enforcement, all helped to increase the initial seatbelt wearing rate to about 49%.

Entertainment, combined with legislation pushes safety forward

Countries around the world understand the full importance of having citizens wear seatbelts. At least in terms of legislation, the outlook is positive. WHO states that 111 countries (69% of the world’s population) now have comprehensive seat-belt laws covering all occupants. However, to translate this into acculturating social norms towards safety (getting people to actually use their seatbelts) it will take a combination of enforcement by trained police (generally through fines) as well as more lighthearted approaches, from Vince and Larry to the Por Amor campaign. From seatbelts and helmets to speed limits and transport planning that supports safer streets, strengthening safe road behavior will require persistent attention. Yet, the potential societal shifts are vast, for convincing individuals to make smarter decisions today can pass down safer societal norms throughout generations.

What entertaining ways can you think of to promote seatbelt usage? Let us know in the comments!

Across the divide: Information and communication connect users and transport systems

Wed, 2014-05-28 20:10

Information-communication technologies have the ability to improve data quality for transport operators while increasing convenience for transport users. Photo by Frederik_Rowing/Flickr.

As the situation stands in India, lack of data connectivity inhibits the success of urban transport systems on two fronts. On one hand, transport operators do not have the baseline information to do their job efficiently. On the other hand, transport users are not given the data they need to make informed decisions on how they can move throughout their cities. In response, urban residents turn to private vehicles to claim a greater sense of ownership over their mobility. Although complex, there are clear steps forward in order to create the basic ecosystem for successful transport systems in Indian cities.

These steps include using current information-communication technologies (ICT) to tie together currently discrete services into a cohesive transport network. These ICT solutions are particularly relevant to India’s notoriously chaotic urban bus systems. To do this, it is necessary to change the way that cities deal with data – including streamlining data classification and coding as well as building platforms for transport operators and casual users alike to utilize the city’s transport data. With a stronger information-communication technology framework, India’s disparate urban transport systems can merge into continuous, adaptable, and convenient platforms for urban mobility.

The need for stronger data

One of the major roadblocks in strengthening India’s urban transport systems is a lack of consistent classification within each system; each individual defines routes differently, there are no sequence of bus stops or set schedules, and no shared set of maps. This means that users have unreliable information as to when they can catch the bus, or where the bus will drop them off. This unreliable information creates inconvenience, in turn fueling car culture and increasing motorization.

Meanwhile, processes that have been given to bus drivers to help streamline operations and collect useful data – including trip planning, rostering, vehicle and duty allocation, and fare collection and consolidation – are so tedious that the data the drivers input is often so incorrect as to be useless, or missing entirely. In order for transport operators to create more effective routes and more innovative pricing structures, they need accurate data. The drivers need to be given platforms where they can quickly input data, and enable management to assess the data and adapt accordingly.

ICT success demands streamlined processes

Moving towards creating a single, interconnected network demands grappling with the current system’s size and volume. Even the smallest operator will often have hundreds of buses in a fleet. Some of this volume can be resolved through technology. With prevalent GPS systems in buses that can report to central operators whether buses are in or out of service, individual transport operators no longer need to worry about writing down where they are going – technology can track their locations faster and with more accuracy. At other times, the problem of volume can be solved by outsourcing the large problem to many different people – for example, by using electronic ticketing machines so individuals can pay at kiosks before getting on the bus. This system relieves bus drivers from a time-consuming task, demands that the buses keep to a regular route near the kiosks, and saves travel time for all.

Underpinning both of these solutions is a larger demand for a streamlined process between the overarching strategy and the daily operations of buses that is common across vendors and neighborhoods. This is necessary for creating a system that allows is both easily navigable and enjoyable to use.

Big data done the right way: Unlocking the potential for sustainable transport

Even if this streamlined system is only partially successful, it entails generating large amounts of data on the number of passengers, peak times, and areas of concentrated demand. This data has the potential to just sit on different computers, helping individual vendors take infinitesimal bites out of their competition. But, if the different data streams meet, and this data is synthesized in an accessible way, then it can provide immense value to everyone in the system, from vendors who can see whether the current supply of buses matches up with demand, to drivers who can see the most profitable routes, to everyday users who can access buses where and when they need them. Making this data attractive through infographics, and placing it on mobile platforms through time tables, route maps, and interactive trip planners, might even entice some customers back to sustainable transport – or to create new mobility systems of their own.

A story of demand and dissent for Mumbai’s skywalks

Fri, 2014-05-16 19:36

Mumbai India’s skywalks have been a symbol of poor planning for the city, but with public engagement and key design initiatives, the skywalk still has the potential to increase access for the residents of the city. Photo by TheMumbaiflyover/Flickr.

Mumbai, India’s skywalk project was meant to provide better connectivity and accessibility for pedestrians in the city. The project – a joint initiative of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and the Maharshtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) – aimed to build a target of 50 skywalks with a pricetag of USD 123 million. The goal was not only to build the world’s largest skywalk network, but also to shape Mumbai as an innovative leader in urban planning among developing cities. Due in part to poor planning and a contractor-driven agenda, the skywalks are now largely a blight on the city. Yet, the project’s failures also serve to illuminate the path forward. With human-centred design and public participation, these skywalks can become the tools to increase sustainable mobility that Mumbai’s planners envisioned and that citizens deserve.

Skywalks: The seemingly silver bullet

There was originally huge enthusiasm in the media for Mumbai’s skywalks – they were seen as solutions for a healthier, more active lifestyle, calming traffic, and fighting pollution. Thirty-seven skywalks rose around the city over the course of the past five years. Yet a survey conducted by the Mumbai Transformation Support Unit revealed that only one or two major skywalks were attracting pedestrians. The MMRDA called off further construction of the skywalks amidst growing dissent over the once glorified project. In an interview given to the Times of India, Vasai legislator and activist Vivek Pandit dubbed the skywalk project a “contractor driven project” with hardly any public outreach and little research behind the locations and safety of the skywalks. The Times found that only 1% of pedestrians use the skywalks for commuting, which was thought to yield the highest economic return for the project.

More problems come to light

Dissent surrounding the skywalks only increased following public availability of data on the project’s safety. According to a recent survey published in the Hindustan Times, 63.2% of people said the skywalks were not safe for women, especially at non-peak hours. 42.6% felt they were unsafe for everyone, with 81.4% going so far as to say that there needed to be full time security.

Other issues emerged, such as skywalks being constructed too close to residential buildings and creating privacy issues for residents; in other places, construction was delayed by as long as four years and caused persistent traffic congestion in the surrounding communities. Some of the issues with the skywalk were more subtle, such as there being no visible signboards for first time users. Lack of services, such as escalators and ramps, also made it difficult for the mobility-impaired to access the skywalks.

Can the skywalk be saved?

Pulling the plug and knocking down or closing the skywalks will not aid Mumbai’s mounting  traffic congestion problem or advance the city towards walkability, livability, or sustainability. After several comparative studies of services being offered successfully in other cities, such as metro stations in Delhi, the Vadodra Bus Terminal of Gujrat, and the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport of Hyderbabad a few key initiatives have been found that can turn Mumbai’s skywalks into a successful project not only in terms of utility but in terms of revenue as well:

  • Increase usability with proper signboards to help first-time commuters.
  • Increase accessibility for all populations by providing escalators and wheelchairs at all skywalks.
  • Increase infrastructure maintenance for clean walkways and to avoid unwanted encroachment.
  • Strategic placement of skywalks around metros and airports to connect and integrate transport modes.
  • Partner with local vendors to occupy areas around the footpaths to drum up foot traffic—increasing safety and helping local businesses.
  • Provide both male and female security guards to increase security for female commuters.

Any project that seeks to bring long-term sustainability to an urban area requires public engagement, particularly as these projects are taxpayer-funded and citizens are the ultimate users. Indian city dwellers are beginning to question the infrastructure that their cities are providing them, and they are growing ever more resolute in asserting their needs. For Mumbai’s skywalks and beyond, Indian citizens have made their demand for safe, connected cities and the sustainable mobility they deserve.

 

Integrating health benefits into transport planning and policy: The case of Indore, India

Thu, 2014-05-01 19:55

The city of Indore, India, is a pilot city for the creation of a new Health Impact Assessment methodology that will be used to evaluate the potential impacts of transport developments and policies on city residents. Photo by McKay Savage/Flickr.

India alone accounts for about 10% of traffic fatalities worldwide. Fourteen lives are lost every hour, totalling 330 people that die each day on India’s roads. Out of this number, pedestrians comprise 21% of these deaths. In order to combat these fatalities, Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) should be used to evaluate the potential impacts of traffic developments and policies on city residents. Recently on TheCityFix, we discussed why Health Impact Assessments should be an integral part of transport policy and planning. Today, we’ll take a closer look at how this plays out in the Indian context.

The dominant Health Impact Assessment model was not originally intended to address the transport sector, nor was it optimized to work for the kinds of problems faced by developing countries. To create a more contextually appropriate Health Impact Assessment model, EMBARQ India developed a methodology focusing on modal shift – when users switch from one transport mode to another – and vehicle kilometers traveled (VKT) for Indian cities, where measurement of health outcomes can be difficult and resource-intensive. This model was then used to evaluate the health impacts of the recently implemented bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor in the city of Indore, Madhya Pradesh. The case of Indore reveals the immense potential of Health Impact Assessments to benefit the safety and health of people in emerging economies.

Establishing a baseline for progress

One of the first components of this new Health Impact Assessment methodology is a baseline assessment of the current impacts unsafe transport options have on Indore’s residents. Motorized two-wheelers and unorganized public transport – like auto-rickshaws, mini buses and vans – contribute to around 85% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Indore. A 2012 study from EMBARQ India and TARU identified vehicle traffic to be the primary source of air pollution and also found very high concentration of particulate matter levels in several areas of Indore. This rapid increase of motor vehicles in Indore has contributed to an equally rapid decline in air quality.

Increasing air pollution has a corresponding effect on citizens’ health. High PM10 – one of two types of particulate matter – values can cause respiratory health problems such as coughing, wheezing, and reduced lung function; 20 million people already suffer from asthma across India. Outdoor air pollution caused an estimated 620,000 deaths in India in 2010, a six-fold increase from 2000, and is the fifth leading cause of disease in India. Acute respiratory infections are one of the most common causes of deaths in children under five in India, and they contributed to 13% of in-patient deaths in pediatric wards in India in 2013. Roughly 1.6 million Indians died in 2012 from traffic crashes, a 73% rise from 2001 that is estimated to further increase by 200,000 deaths and 3 million hospitalizations by 2015.  

The health impacts of transport projects significantly impact economic vitality for cities and communities. The exposure to air pollution and increase in vehicles increases the cost to society via visits to the emergency room, hospital admissions and missed days of work and school and is  estimated at a loss of 3% of India’s GDP. This translates into a loss of 4522.96 million Indian Rupees (INR) (US$ 113.08 million) for a 50 micrograms per cubic meter increase in PM10, also known as an increase in ash-sized particles that can be inhaled and accumulate in the lungs, leading to lowered immune systems, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer.

Findings in Indore resonate across India

The damages caused by an increase in vehicles and air pollution levels is significant, yet findings from Indore show that with proper attention to the health impacts of transport developments, the gains from shifting people from cars to sustainable transport are also vast. It is estimated that those who switch from cars to bicycles gain three to 14 months on their lives on average. Additionally, should Indore maintain its BRT network, the city can save an estimated 19 lives per year after 2014, resulting from the reduction in traffic fatalities from fewer vehicles on the road, reduced exposure to air pollution, and increased physical activity.

In order to accurately estimate the health impacts of transport, more research is needed to develop tools that more accurately reflect the environmental context of India and other developing countries. This is especially true of measuring physical activity, for which there is the least data available.

Engraining health and equity into future public policy

The case study of Indore has laid an important foundation for assessing the potential impacts of new urban developments, but there is still more work to be done. For example, the poor in India are the most vulnerable to air pollution exposure and road accidents because they are the largest proportion of pedestrians and cyclists. The equity issues related to the health impacts of transportation decisions also require careful study and consideration, for a Health Impact Assessment that brings positive benefits to only part of the population is not truly successful.

The pace and scale of environmental, social, and economic change occurring across India contributes to the urgency of applying the models created in Indore across all of India. Growing demand for motor vehicles and an increasingly affluent populace are widening inequality and exacerbating the health impacts on the most disadvantaged portions of society. Health Impact Assessment can help evaluate the economic benefits of transportation projects, complementing the usual metrics like time savings and reduction in operational costs, to help policy makers choose the most sustainable and socially responsible development projects, creating healthier, safer cities for all residents.

 

Cities that inspire us for United Nations Global Road Safety Week 2015

Thu, 2014-05-01 00:46

Pedestrianization projects like those is Istanbul, Turkey can reduce traffic crashes and protect pedestrians. Photo by Andres Arjona/Flickr.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the third Global Road Safety Week occurred in April 2014. The third Global Road Safety week is planned for 2015. 

Already there are 1.2 million traffic-related deaths per year worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, if we stay on a business-as-usual course, road fatalities are expected to become the fifth-leading cause of death by 2030. In order to stem this rising crisis, the United Nations Road Safety Collaboration has set up a yearly Global Road Safety Week to convene country leaders, draw attention to the urgent need to protect all road users worldwide, and create policies that advance the goals of the Decade of Action for Road Safety.

But committing to road safety takes more than writing policy; it necessitates understanding not simply how urban systems should work, but the subtle ways in which humans actually act in these spaces. This understanding means true success can only occur when urban residents both refuse to accept auto-centric development and know concrete steps they can take to correct unsafe situations. In honor of the UN Global Road Safety Collaboration announcing its commitment to Global Road Safety Week 2015, TheCityFix has rounded up some of our favorite examples of cities addressing road safety challenges and their innovative solutions to bring back human-centered mobility.

The re-making of public spaces in Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey faced the problem of needing to move a daytime population of 2.5 million people efficiently around its Historic Peninsula. The city needed to advance its infrastructure to meet the needs of its residents, yet the small, twisting alleyways of the historic district made this task appear impossible without creating several highways. Yet this solution would have decimated the rich character of the area.

Between 2010 and 2012, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and the Fatih Municipality, in collaboration with EMBARQ Turkey, worked to pedestrianize some 250 streets in Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula. In order to move people efficiently throughout the peninsula, the city also installed a light-rail trolley. These pedestrianization projects have had multiple benefits, from supporting physical activity, growing economic development through the increase in customers walking along commercial corridors, and producing better air quality. Istanbul’s example shows that it is possible to build pedestrian spaces that improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, without sacrificing mobility.

Accessibility in Bangalore: Putting pedestrians first

With 10 million people, the city of Bangalore has doubled its population over the past twenty years. With this increase in population has come an explosion in the rates of motorization, with 50% of households now owning motorized transport. Much of this new wealth has gone towards road construction and expansion. This increasingly auto-centric infrastructure has resulted in disappearing sidewalks and barriers between pedestrians and car users and increased congestion on roadways. This leads to an increase in traffic crashes, particularly those involving pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.

But Bangalore is working to reverse this trend and restore pedestrian infrastructure. The “Towards a Walkable and Sustainable Bengaluru: A Safe Access Project for Indiranagar Metro” project looks to increase safe access to Bangalore’s metro stations for residents using all kinds of transport, while preserving the vibrant informal economy of street vendors and rickshaw drivers that rely on these transport hubs.

Leading locally for large-scale change

Already, half of the world lives in cities. By 2050, 70 percent of people are expected to live in cities. If we begin to think of road safety as an afterthought in this rapid urbanization process, it will be too late. To maintain cities as locations for opportunity and innovation, we need to preserve the flow of people and goods through safe and efficient transportation. Well-planned cities that offer multiple sustainable mobility options will improve urbanites’ quality of life and provide access to opportunities. Examples like Istanbul and Bangalore, combined with EMBARQ’s other road safety work in cities across the globe, offers strong examples for how to make this safe, connected, sustainable future possible.

Hailing autos everywhere: Entrepreneurial ideas transform Chennai’s auto-rickshaw sector

Mon, 2014-04-28 22:30

New services are venturing to transform the way the auto-rickshaw sector is managed in Chennai, India – to the benefit of users. Photo by Matthieu Aubry/Flickr.

Chennai, the capital of the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has long been infamous for the poor quality of its auto-rickshaw services. Until recently, it was best known for delinquent drivers fleecing passengers as they refused to use fare meters. However, a long unmet desire for reliable last-mile connectivity has catalyzed private entrepreneurs to venture into the auto-rickshaw sector. These private entrepreneurs, such as the new Makkal Auto service, have in the past month improved the quality of transport for their own passengers through transparency and smart use of technology. Combined with state government’s reforms aimed at ensuring fair pricing, the hope is that the actions of Makkal Auto and other entrepreneurs will spark a paradigm shift in the efficiency and quality of the city’s auto-rickshaw services.

Makkal Auto brings entrepreneurial mindset to auto-rickshaw sector

Makkal Auto’ means “people’s auto” in Tamil. While another private auto-rickshaw service with the same name exists in Coimbatore, Mansoor Ali Khan, the founder of Makkal Auto (Chennai) and the co-founder of Namma Auto, believes this is a good thing. A familiar name, he hopes, will bring credibility and an emotional connection with it.

Namma Auto, meaning “our auto” in Tamil, was launched in May 2013 as the first private company providing metered auto-rickshaw services in Chennai. It provides hassle-free, metered rides and allows users to both call to book an auto-rickshaw or flag one down on the roadside. Besides using a digital meter and providing courteous service, Namma Auto rickshaw drivers give printed receipts of the fare to passengers. One unanticipated challenge is that Namma Auto’s strong branding makes it easier for unions and other more scrupulous drivers to stop them from gaining customers at traditional rickshaw stands. This issue has not been formally resolved, but despite lingering tensions,  the owners of Namma Auto are learning from such obstacles, and hope to make Makkal Auto a better venture.

Learning lessons on leveraging resources

One of Makkal Auto’s biggest strengths is its use of technology. Each of the rickshaw drivers has a tablet with software developed by Singapore-based company Terratech. The software presents information to the passenger – information about the driver, advertisements for local stores, and in the future possibly documentaries and television series to watch. The tablet also acts as a GPS system, allowing the company’s owners to see where the rickshaws are most needed and monitor the movement of the autos.

Since the tablet is a big investment (each one costs INR 20,000 or USD 330), the use of the tablets is being rolled out slowly. The tablet is currently being used in 100 auto-rickshaws, of which 25 are owned directly by Makkal Auto. So far, the technology seems wildly successful, with a list of 800 drivers who are willing to use this meter in their vehicle, and several companies wanting to place their advertisements on the rickshaw’s tablet.

Along with the tablet, Makkal Auto also offers a “help” button. When pressed, it alerts the traffic police control room and the Makkal Auto regional office. Pressing the help button also initiates the camera in the tablet to start recording automatically, providing passengers an extra layer of security. However, since the meter runs on the GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) system, it is necessary that the infrastructure is in place for the tablets to work. Makkal Auto has also started providing cashless payment options to passengers.  Currently, this capability is only being used in 15 rickshaws, but it would be surprising if the practice did not expand. Cashless payment gives the company’s owners better tracking of their business, and gives customers less of a reason to carry around large sums of money, and in turn, more security.

Makkal Auto’s new auto-rickshaw meters attach tablets, enabling passengers access to GPS and even entertainment during their ride. Photo by Roshan Toshniwal.

Placing importance on safety and courtesy

Makkal Auto has also seen immense success for its female only auto-rickshaw services. Inspired by the Pink auto initiative in Gurgaon, Makkal Auto provides auto rickshaws driven by women to cater to women, children, the elderly, and men accompanying female passengers. Currently, there are 25 trained female drivers in their service. The company helped these women to obtain their driver’s license and also helps them grow their customer base. The company also provides the women auto-rickshaws on a rental basis.

In addition to this increased concern for women’s safety, Makkal Auto has placed a central emphasis on courtesy. Makkal Auto’s drivers have been instructed to charge as per the meter, and not ask for tips. If the commuter is happy with the driver’s service, there is an option to leave a tip in a donation box where the passenger sits. This is a more dignified approach, as it creates a more relaxing environment for the user and prompts the driver to deliver better service.

Makkal Auto’s strategic use of technology and increased courtesy is likely to be successful, but it is not simply this singular company’s success that is incredible. As Indian citizens recognize how a rickshaw service can be safe, comfortable, and tech-savvy, user’s preferences are likely to force other rickshaw companies to deliver the same calibre of service. By increasing the expectations of auto-rickshaw drivers, and giving the drivers the technological tools to deliver on those expectations, it has the capability to transform the auto-rickshaw sector and significantly improve mobility in Indian cities.

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