On Affordable and Inclusive Mobility in India

15 June 2023 - // Interviews
Aishwarya Raman
Executive Director of OMI Foundation

Aishwarya Raman discusses how urbanization lacks accessible and inclusive mobility, but there are hopeful solutions ahead.

What main challenges face the mobility sector in India?  

India is at a crossroads. With the world’s youngest population, it is an opportune time to prioritize the principles of equity and sustainability in its growth trajectory, the latter determined by the needs and aspirations of its population. From ​​​​​35% of India’s population living in cities in 2020 to over 43% predicted to reside in urban areas by 2035​, the rate of urbanization is high and riddled with challenges and opportunities alike.

Cities occupy only 3% of the nation’s land but contribute a whopping 60% of the gross domestic product (GDP), as estimated in the United Nations’ 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects. It is here that the role of mobility gains significance.

Mobility can be both an enabler and a barrier to an individual’s access to socioeconomic opportunities. The way in which cities design, construct, and sustain mobility solutions can play an immense role in easing growing challenges including unfettered motorization, congestion, increasing demand for parking, pollution, road crashes, fatalities, affordability issues, and ill-equipped infrastructure rendering mobility inaccessible to many.

Unplanned motorization has dire consequences. The total number of registered vehicles in India crossed 295.8 million in 2018-19, a nearly 1000-fold growth from the 0.3 million registered vehicles in 1951 and a nearly three-times increase from the 115 million registered in 2008-09, as per the Road Transport Year Book 2017-18 and 2018-19. The most alarming is the decline in the share of buses from 11% around the time of India’s independence in 1947 to a measly 0.7% in 2019. This points to the unsustainable growth potential within India – a challenge that must be nipped in the bud.

The unchecked growth of motor vehicles is inconsistent with how India truly travels. Over 60% of India’s non-agrarian population uses non-motorized transport modes such as walking and cycling, and public transport such as buses, trams, metros, or suburban rails along with intermediate public transport such as taxis and auto-rickshaws for their everyday commute, according to the Census of India – 2011. The 2011 data also indicated that most Indians travel short distances to get to work. Since cities were historically developed to warrant short commutes, it was predictable that the 2011 Census found a majority of the working population traveling less than 5 km to their workplace, with a significant 45% of women not traveling at all.

While Census 2011 made a first attempt at capturing the travel patterns of the working population in India, the OMI Foundation has been advocating to prioritize studying and supporting the mobility needs, preferences, and aspirations of especially non-disabled women. Women constitute half of our population, but less than 20% of them actively participate in the economy. Women, with their caregiving or social production responsibilities, often travel with dependents, take trips of varying lengths and utilize multiple modes of transport through different legs of the journey. Women have significantly lower access to and control over assets such as personal motor vehicles, as evidenced in the 2021 studies by OMI Foundation, ‘Women in the driving seat’, and ‘Women in the platform economy.’ Subsequently, women rely on public transport, intermediate public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure, and public spaces for their daily travel. Women are not the only community whose needs go unaddressed. Urban mobility – both physical and digital infrastructure and services — must work for all, including women, people with disabilities, the elderly, ​trans/ non-binary individuals, ​​children, and individuals belonging to low-resource households. The travel patterns and preferences of India’s diverse population need to be factored into national, regional, and city-level planning.

Mobility can be both an enabler and a barrier to an individual’s access to socio-economic opportunities.

What are some key aspects of the mobility environment in terms of accessibility, inclusivity, and progressiveness for all communities? 

Inclusive mobility may be defined as mobility that is safe, accessible, reliable, and affordable for all. It is estimated that India has more than 180 million people living with a disability, including visual, hearing and speech, locomotor, intellectual and other forms of disability. By overlooking the needs of people with disabilities, often at the planning stage itself, cities render mobility solutions impractical and exclusionary for a significant proportion of the population.

Through surveys and focused group discussions with people with disabilities and interviews with organizations advocating for the welfare of disabled people, OMI studied the travel experiences of people with disabilities in late 2019 and 2020​. From the get-go, inaccessible digital resources like websites and apps, physical resources travel booklets or display boards, and inadequate information about the accessibility of mobility services and infrastructure inhibit trip planning of persons with disabilities.

On-ground travel experience also leaves much to be desired. People with disabilities often travel independently but are constrained by the inaccessible built environment. Traveling to and from the mode of transit and getting on and off the vehicle are more challenging than the in-transit experience itself. Inadequate training and sensitization of mobility staff (drivers, conductors, toll booth operators, and police personnel) also adversely affect the travel experience.

Women with disabilities face gender-based violence in addition to general inaccessibility. The silver lining is that persons with disabilities regularly use technology to navigate and verify routes, with deaf individuals also leveraging smartphones to overcome communication barriers. Payment methods, whether digital or cash-based, are also varyingly inaccessible to persons with disabilities depending on their nature and degree of disability.

Accessibility, safety, affordability, and reliability are paramount to ensuring mobility solutions work for all. Even public transport can be unaffordable for many. The Centre for Science and Environment found in a 2019 study that the Delhi Metro is the second most expensive metro service in the world, with ​​middle-income individuals spending 15% of their income and low-income individuals spending over 20% of their income. The threshold recommended by experts is 10%. Likewise, the quality of safety is highly variable and includes aspects like safety against being mugged in public transport to safety against gender-based violence.

The Delhi Metro is the second most expensive metro service in the world with middle- and low-income individuals spending 15% and 20% of their incomes, respectively, on fares.

What are some of the ways mobility can be more inclusive and accessible to all? What are areas of intervention?  

Once established, a transport system can be used for decades. Therefore, considerations of inclusive mobility should be a part of the success criteria in the design and planning stage, the implementation and monitoring stage, and the evaluation stage.

The travel patterns and perceptions of the transport-disadvantaged community should be mainstreamed. This starts with data collection. Therefore, India must mandate the gathering of up-to-date mobility data disaggregated by gender, age, and disability. Mobility surveys must also include respondents from varying income groups and occupations. Further, surveys should be designed to capture differences in travel patterns and specific questions, both qualitative and quantitative, to understand how notions of safety, comfort, affordability, reliability, convenience, and accessibility are gendered. ​One such endeavor is the recently released flagship study by the OMI Foundation, Ease of Moving Index – India Report 2022. The report is the outcome of India’s largest inclusive mobility survey covering 9 parameters of mobility, 100+ indicators, and over 3 million data points collected from 50,000+ respondents (women, trans/ non-binary individuals, men, persons with disabilities, informal sector workers, gig and platform economy workers, those performing domestic and other caregiving duties, etc.) spanning 40 cities, representing 25% of India’s urban population.​

Second, we must create standards of accessibility for physical and digital infrastructure across the trip chain. India should specify universal accessibility as an essential criterion in the technical requirements for the procurement of goods. Third, we must ensure that the country’s disaster response, especially with respect to transportation, is disability-inclusive. Fourth, India should introduce fiscal incentives for accessible mobility, thus encouraging the industry to invest in the development and production of accessible mobility solutions. Fifth, automobile companies and transport operators should be incentivized to publish an accessibility policy along with an annual roadmap for accessibility improvements based on standards notified by the government. Finally, we must conduct regular, independent, and professional accessibility audits of mobility systems covering the entire trip chain.

Throughout these steps, the role of civil society is significant. Asking elected representatives for mobility solutions and public spaces to be made inclusive, conducting audits of mobility infrastructure and public spaces, and raising awareness of the need for safe, accessible, reliable, and affordable mobility are but a few of the ways in which civil society can help.

We must also ensure that the technological leaps made by the electric mobility industry emphasize the principles of accessibility and inclusion. Persons with disabilities and other transport-disadvantaged communities regularly leverage technology to plan and execute trips. In general, digitalization plays a fundamental role in advancing the ​transformative ​​​​​Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) framework for sustainable mobility. ​The ASI approach​​ ​helps​ ​reduce​ the need to travel by promoting teleworking and e-commerce, ​enables a shift​ to shared mobility, and ​improves​ efficiency through vehicle technology. However, digitalization risks disenfranchising over 100 million persons with disabilities living in India if these digital technologies are not made accessible to this community.

Another opportunity exists in the form of government agencies initiating travel subsidy programs and offering free or subsidized access to public transport for underserved populations. Such measures enhance the affordability of a city’s mobility infrastructure. Against this backdrop, OMI Foundation has conceptualized the award-winning ‘Digital Mobility Subsidy’, a tech-powered subsidy delivery solution, to overcome the limitations of the current model. The winner of the UN-India and National Institute of Urban Affairs Smart Solutions and Inclusive Cities Award 2022 in the ‘Early-Stage Innovation’ category, this recognition is a testimony to the potential of technology to improve the affordability and accessibility of mobility systems toward an inclusive India.

Accessibility, safety, affordability and reliability are paramount to ensuring mobility solutions for all.

Discover Sustainable India
Aishwarya Raman
Executive Director of OMI Foundation

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