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.