Reimagining Transportation

Mumbai - the city of dreams


In the year 2012, I fell in love. Having grown up in a remote part of India, and gone to college in an equally remote town, the CITY had always fascinated me. And for city lovers around India (and a lot of the world), Mumbai (erstwhile Bombay) is the queen of all cities. Home to the financial center of the country and its humongous film industry, the moniker "City of dreams" suits it to a T - where rag tag youth from around the country's numerous villages and towns move to realize their dreams. I was one of those starry eyed young people who moved there in search for more meaning in life than designing software interfaces for faceless corporations. Mumbai did not disappoint, and I fell in love with its vastness, its pragmatism and its strange but wonderful citizen. Over the time I lived there, I truly felt at home - internalizing the city's struggles as my own, something I hadn't felt in the places I lived before - it was my first home, not my hometown, but my home.

Chief among the struggles that I inherited with this new found identity as a Mumbaikar(that's what we call ourselves there), was that of getting from point A to B. The city had a very functional but potentially deadly train transit system. This was the fastest and cheapest way to get around, but also highly under-capacity and unsafe. Every year, the city loses around 1500 bright futures to train accidents on this system. In the vastness of India's population, slow frequent death tolls are often lost in the wind. Over the duration of my life in the city, I found myself increasingly interested in what possible solutions to this problem was. India is a country that thrives in ambiguity and organic growth. None of our cities have really been planned and our road networks function on a set of incredibly ambiguous emergent traffic rules. It felt like copying public transport solutions from developed countries, could only do harm to the existing system. The context in India is vastly different, and transplanting a social-system like transport from a different context always leaves much to be desired.

For example, take Delhi's subway system. It is a modern, highly planned system that was developed over less than a decade. But stops along the subway lines were planned, not on the basis of existing commute patterns, but on which politician had the biggest pull on the planners, and where they wanted to appease voters. Th end result being a great system that caters to the city, but extremely inefficient distribution of stops leading to worse road traffic in already badly impacted neighborhoods. This ambiguity and apparent lawlessness (in terms of regulation violations not crimes), is not a bug, but a feature of India. India is a large, strange and wonderful land of contradictions, and derives its very character from it. Expecting compliance towards greater organization can destine the best laid plans to the garbage bin.

And thus, although I hadn't categorized this problem as such back in 2012, life handed me my first wicked problem that I truly wanted to solve. Almost 5 years later, I found my interest in urban planning and transportation leading me into this program.

New York - THE city

New York City has been an interesting move. In many ways, it feels like an upgraded version of Mumbai with wider roads and relatively richer people. The vibe and hustle of the city is quite similar to my old home. What has been most interesting to me has been the well-articulated subway system. Sure, it has its downfalls, but the ability to get from anywhere to anywhere within the city, inside a consistent time-frame regardless of on road traffic is spectacular. The stations (with a few exceptions) and schedules feel well planned in accordance with commute traffic times. Yet, the roads are clogged with cars and traffic. This left me wondering what's going on. Is it a capacity problem? Is it one of the subway network not reaching everywhere that it needs to, or is it that the subway network will never be able to comply with people's diverse movement needs?

The problem is probably a combination of all of these, coupled with a permanent or temporary disdain for using public transport among the city's dwellers. New York city street are constantly cut by pedestrian crossings and sidewalks and this entire mix of humans and cars end up causing significant delays across the roads. While it is still far better than India's unmoderated chaos, there is still much lacking in NYC's valiant attempt at a planned transit system.


A different future for urban movement

Cities are the most extraordinary experiment in social engineering that we humans have ever come up with. If you live in a city,and even if you live in a slum --which 20 percent of the world's urban population does --you're likely to be healthier, wealthier, better educated and live longer than your country cousins. There's a reason why three million people are moving to cities every single week. Cities are where the future happens first .They're open, they're creative, they're dynamic, they're democratic, they're cosmopolitan, they're sexy. They're the perfect antidote to reactionary nationalism.

- Robert Muggah, Igarape Institute

But our growing megacities face a movement crisis of mega proportions as well. We've come to normalize traffic jams and delays as a part of the city life. Back in India, where unplanned roads, lack of lanes and a multitude of different vehicles all trying to get ahead of the other, lead to increasingly long travel times, this problem is so big that it's impossible to miss it. The cities in the west are dealing with lower volumes now, but as population is on the rise, it's hard to see, how without a planned approach, South Asia like street madness can be avoided.

The largest portion of commuters in any city are almost without exception concerned about getting from point A to B in an affordable and reliable way. For many this translates into using the public transit system, for some its cabs and for some its personal vehicles. The public transport system comes with its pitfalls - last mile commutes are not covered, lack of personalized experience. It is impossible to meet everyone's needs with a singleton system like this, at best it can do what it can for the largest fraction, never the whole. Cabs and cars on the road are susceptible and often a victim of road network clogs. Looking at the system from a macro perspective, we've come to see that ride pooling is a definite way of reducing congestion. Governments have promoted this by building special carpool lanes, and providing other sorts of incentives. Private companies like Uber have used the same concepts to play middle men in aggregating passengers in order to turn in a profit. The concept is simple. If multiple people are going to a similar destination, cross sharing of that information leads to lower traffic for the city and a cost benefit for the traveller. At the heart of this process of shared transport, is information. Safe, reliable and mass route information sharing then becomes a cornerstone of this tactic.

Already, we generate this information required for this. Every time we book a cab on an app, or set google to navigate to a destination, or simply have our phones geo-sensors on, we generate data, that if shared could help algorithms cluster and group movement needs to create efficient movement patterns. This makes me wonder what it would look like, if instead of sharing this data with profiteering companies, we set up a socially owned platform where all of this data is shared in a non-compromising fashion, and a modular city-wide transport system is able to configure vehicles on a demand basis and reduce the street glut of cars. Maybe the blockchain, which stands out as a model for distributed trust, can be tweaked to achieve this goal. Such a system will be made increasingly possible as self-driving cars start to get better and move out of the labs into our daily lives.

I imagine a world where we no longer own cars, but instead pay for a transportation subscription, which runs a fleet of modular self-driving cars, with an algorithm constantly clustering individual travel requests and joining/separating modular transport pods to achieve the most efficient street movement possible. A system where cars are no longer individual assets, but rather social ones, while still being able to provide end to end last mile connectivity - maybe with a set of individual pods that can join into train-like forms for common routes and split up into individual ones for last mile connectivity. This would be a combination of the best of the worlds of public and private transport. You could even extend the idea to individual units that can work for both humans and freight, thereby turning all varied movement in a city into a single system whose units can be re-purposed on the fly.

This is obviously a rather speculative scenario. Achieving this would require gargantuan amounts of cross spectrum collaboration - from the city dwellers, to the government, to the car manufacturers. And like all solutions to 'wicked' problems, it is bound to be wrong in many ways. As I step into the final stretch of my studio project (which is roughly based around the paragraph above), I'm almost excited to see all the pitfalls of my techno-utopian idea of urban transport, for in those pitfalls, I believe, lies a more elegant solution.


Anurag Dutta