Sustainable mobility amid COVID-19 pandemic
There is a need to address the wider challenge of development pattern and infrastructure provision to deal with the issue of sustainable mobility.
Though during the COVID-19 lockdown, people’s interest for non-motorised transport has witnessed a rise, the lack of infrastructure such as separate cycle tracks etc. among other reasons is likely to adversely affect this. (Image: Needpix)

Most of the travel demand in the Indian cities is met by the non-motorized and public transport systems i.e. low carbon modes of transport. With the growing urbanization and income levels along with the degraded infrastructure to support the low carbon modes, the dependency on personal motorized vehicles will increase soon.

There are also concerns related to the discrepancy in the use of low carbon modes of transport by the different socio-economic groups of society. As such the existing non-motorized transport and public transport users are the groups of people who cannot afford personal motorized modes of transport.

Therefore, achieving sustainable mobility targets in Indian cities requires a ‘retain, shift and improve’ approach - retain the existing users of low carbon modes of transport by the provision of competitive services, shift the potential travel demand to the low carbon modes and improve the technology to reduce per kilometre emission factors of motorized modes.

A greater challenge also lies with the development pattern and urbanization levels of Indian cities. The research conducted by the author shows that as the districts in India continue to urbanize and attract secondary and tertiary sector employment, the travel intensity is likely to increase.

There is therefore a need to address the wider challenge of development pattern and infrastructure provision that can help in reducing the increasing travel demand and meet it effectively. It includes concentrating development within existing urban centres, encouraging complementary land use functions and integrated development of non-motorized and public transport infrastructure. The choice of strategy however will depend on the existing and planned development in the districts.

National Urban Transport Policy highlights the need to develop public transport and non-motorized transport infrastructure in Indian cities. This can pave a long way towards addressing mobility needs effectively and efficiently. In the past 5 to 7 years, various projects have been designed and implemented to encourage the use of public transport and non-motorized transport system under the Smart Cities Mission.

This includes the development of smart bus stops, implementation of common fare cards and deployment of intelligent transport systems for effective fleet management. Implementation of pedestrian and bicyclist accentuated traffic signals in Indore, development of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure in cities like Belgavi, Udaipur and Guwahati and bicycle pods and public information system in Devanagere are few examples of non-motorized transport infrastructure development.

Various services like Bla Bla car and Ola car-pool have established easy to use car-pool mechanism that helps in reducing per kilometre consumption of fuel and greenhouse gas emissions. The interventions from both the public and private sector can help Indian cities to retain and reduce the impact of transport on the environment.

Both the development pattern of cities and infrastructure development can help in paving a sustainable behaviour of the citizens. However, the policy and infrastructure related disruptions along with natural disruptions like extreme weather events, catastrophic events and climate change are likely to alter the behaviour in short- and long-term. This can affect the attainment of sustainability goals that are being targeted through various strategies for intervention.

The existing COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire world and all the sectors within a short time. Most accepted strategies towards restraining the spread of coronavirus in wider public are sanitization of surfaces and hands, maintaining social distances and staying at home as far as possible.

To combat the situation, the lockdown has been implemented in India since March 25, 2020, suspending all the sectors from an operation. The third phase of lockdown had allowed operation of normal bus movement with 50% capacity in green zones. Thereafter through various unlock phases, all the sectors were allowed to operate under the issued guidelines. This had resulted in the need for people to access work and healthcare-related opportunities therefore increased the travel demand.

Given the restricted operation of the public transport system and aggregated network in Indian cities and the potential risks of exposure to coronavirus in shared spaces, the usage of the existing public and para-transit network is questionable. The COVID-19 situation is likely to push the existing public and para-transit system users to the personal motorized modes, therefore affecting the sustainable mobility goals.

As per Census 2011 data on other workers, 20% to 50% of the total work trips are met by public transport (bus and rail-based system) and para-transit system (autos/taxis/tempos) in the cities having more than 5 million population. These are the potential trips under threat in the current situation. The urban local bodies and public transport operators, therefore, need to address the growing challenge from three perspectives – operational capacity, risk perception to exposure and potential shift from the public transport system.

Various studies across the globe show the reduction in travel demand, usage of the public transport system and increase in non-motorized transport system since the lockdown has been uplifted. Despite its potential risks, the change in mobility pattern exhibits promising opportunities towards the continuing path of sustainable mobility.

Within 5 million-plus population cities, 20% to 40% of the paratransit and 30% to 50% of the bus trips for work purpose are shorter than 5 km. This segment of the trips is the potential public and para-transit trips that can be shifted to bicycle. The positive examples from Indian cities include an increase in the usage and sales of bicycles in the past 6 – 7 months and development of bicycle infrastructure in Gurugram, Bangalore and Delhi. Combined infrastructure development strategy to support bicycle trips in the cities along with public transport system operation with specific guidelines can support the existing travel demand effectively and efficiently.

Further to this, there is a need to devise a solution to the mobility needs in short- and long-term during and post COVID-19 situation. The key questions shall therefore include the likely change in travel patterns, change in accessibility and affordability to meet travel demand and risk of exposure to coronavirus in shared spaces.

The way forward

Sustainable mobility amid the COVID-19 pandemic is indispensable if we have to come even remotely close to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)-11 set by the United Nation. India currently neither has adequate infrastructure in place nor a population that is willing to amend its ways of transport.

The west had adopted non-motorised transport and public transport even before the COVID-19 pandemic. It, therefore, has the means available to make the transition relatively smoother than in cities in developing countries such as India. India has a long way to go when it comes to developing an impeccable public transport system which can facilitate the shift of people towards it.

Though during the COVID-19 lockdown, people’s interest for non-motorised transport has witnessed a rise, the lack of infrastructure such as separate cycle tracks etc. among other reasons is likely to adversely affect this.

India can overcome all these challenges with the help of dedicated government policies and a people-government partnership at a more committed level.

The three major steps in the quest of sustainable mobility are:

  • Need to understand the change in travel patterns
  • Need to understand and model the risks associated with exposure to coronavirus while using aggregated networks
  • Determine vulnerabilities and its association with age, gender and incomes



These are excerpts from a lecture by Dr Deepty Jain at #PlanetTalks (October 16, 2020) with Dr Simi Mehta organized by the Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (CECCSD) at Impact and Policy Research Institute, India Water Portal, and Department of Energy and Environment, TERI School of Advanced Studies (TERI SAS).


Dr Deepty Jain is Assistant Professor, Department of Energy and Environment, TERI School of Advanced Studies. She has received her Ph.D. in preparing methodology for low carbon mobility planning in Indian cities from Civil Engineering Department, Indian Institute of Technology (IITD), Delhi. She has more than nine years of research experience in the areas of transport planning and policies, urban development, socio-environmental impacts and modelling and simulating urban complexities. 


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