Micromobility around the world : India and the city of 43 million people
In this new series on smart mobility, we look at markets outside of Europe and the US. In India, we see unique potential as well as unique challenges that require the coupling of existing transport solutions with indigenous solutions to meet local needs. The outcome is one of unimaginable scale and improvement of billions of lives.
In these heady days of micromobility expansion, especially in Europe and North America, it can be easy to forget about developments in other parts of the world. Yet it is in the developing world where advancements in mobility alternatives could well have the most impact. With breakneck population growth leading to crippling congestion and pollution. And with sketchy public transport networks and vast sprawling cities, the need for new solutions is urgent. With this in mind, rapidly urbanizing cities in Asia, Africa and South America could well be the dominant micromobility markets of the future.
Urbanization is set to become one of the defining features of our modern world. Although not the fastest growing city in the world — the majority of these being in Africa — no city quite highlights this staggering urbanization like Delhi. The Indian capital with a population of roughly 25.9 million, today, is set to balloon to a teeming 43 million by 2035. Incomprehensible in size, this behemoth of a city is likely to push the boundaries of urban transport. Already heavily congested, Delhi will have to find innovative ways to avoid the danger of immovable gridlocks and unbearable pollution.
In India, we can see a country with unique potential as well as unique challenges. The successes of existing transport solutions such as bike and scooter sharing need to be coupled with indigenous solutions to meet local needs. The outcome is one of unimaginable scale and the improvement of billions of lives.
The case for micromobility in the land of the two-wheeler
Negotiating Indian streets can be a daunting task. Taxis, cars and rickshaws jostle for space while pedestrians from all angles spill out from the roadside. No other vehicle is as popular as the scooter. Their ability to weave in and out of busy traffic and inexpensiveness (relative to a car), have made them a dominant feature of the Indian urban mobility landscape. In fact, 79% of all vehicles sold in the country in 2018 were two-wheelers. This is a problem. Motorized scooters along with cars are heavily polluting and are therefore directly responsible for the premature deaths of millions of Indians. A recent study estimated that in 2017 air pollution killed 1.24m Indians, with half of them being younger than 70. This lowers the country’s average life expectancy by nearly two years. If that wasn’t damning enough, the top ten most polluted cities in the world are all in northern India.
Public transport in India is pretty well used. With only 18 percent of Indians owning a vehicle of any sort, for many it is an important way of getting around. For perspective, 26 million people take the Delhi Metro every single day. But connections are often sketchy and there can be long distances between stations. This oftentimes means that public transport isn’t a viable alternative for shorter journeys which, in turn, puts people off. In this sense India isn’t unique. First and last mile provisions have for a long time been under catered for. The offshoot of this is that many use cars or motorized scooters for shorter journeys which contribute to congestion and are damaging for the environment. In other cases people simply walk, taking chunks of time out of their days. With poor pedestrian infrastructure to boot, this can also be dangerous.
In fact, journey distances of 0–10km make up 65% of the journeys undertaken by Indian households. And with average traffic speeds of under 20 km/h in major Indian cities due to congestion, lighter and more nimble electric vehicles have the potential to muscle in on the market for shorter trips. As they are a lot cheaper than motorized two-wheelers, which are often imported from Japan, individuals as well as vehicle sharing operators are interested. With vehicle ownership out of reach for many Indians, this shared form of mobility would increase the participation of those with low incomes.
The biggest challenge to micromobility including bike-sharing and scooter-sharing schemes in India is poor infrastructure which has been strained by rapid urbanization. Roads are full of potholes with roadsides and pavements often blocked by parked vehicles. Even for those that reach their destination, there is still the not-so-small matter of parking where provisions are, in most cases, non-existent.
This is not only a nuisance but dangerous. Poor infrastructure and low regard for road safety put two-wheelers at risk. They make up a shocking 29.8 percent of all road mortalities in India.
Another challenge is something that we at Parkbob are all too well aware of, that being matching the supply of vehicles with demand. Providing accessibility is a crucial aspect of all shared mobility services and in India this can be made more difficult due to fewer suitable parking spots and because of inconsistencies in data standards. Currently the supply of dockless vehicles such as scooters and bikes is often based on less sophisticated demand predictions such as providing wealthier areas or clustering vehicles around metro stations.
Greater sharing of transit data being collected by cities and solution providers would help to improve services enabling operators and the city to better understand usage patterns. Additionally, positioning vehicles in the right places at the right time and keeping fleets maintained is tricky and requires experience. Indian micromobility operators in the early stages will no doubt find this difficult. Finally, theft can also be a major challenge with fleets being stolen, in some cases, overnight. This can be tackled to some extent by tracking devices built into the bikes and scooters, but things like helmets can be easy targets. Public campaigns promoting the virtue of vehicle sharing would help citizens to take more care of the scooters and bikes.
Hope despite the challenges
If Indian cities like Delhi are to avoid the fate of being gridlocked by traffic congestion and to disappear amidst the fog of air-pollution, they will need to move away from a reliance on motorized vehicles towards lighter, less-polluting ones. Fortunately there are a number of public and private initiatives already underway.
In 2018 a number of cycle rentals initiatives were started. Notable players included Ofo, the Chinese company, which partnered with Paytm (an Indian e-payments system), Yulu Bikes which launched in Bangalore, and Zoomcar. Later in the year, the scooter rental market saw an influx of funding with two large players emerging — Vogo ($108 million) and Bounce ($24 million), backed by Accel and Sequoia Capital. Yulu would also later join the market for scooter rentals.
To meet the demands of rough road conditions, Indian micromobility players are looking to ways in which they can work with OEMs to provide vehicles that are more suitable to tougher demands. Yulu’s scooters for example resemble more a motorized scooter kind than the kick-scooter type, where the rider sits on the scooter. The bikes are aluminium alloy-made and are claimed to be of a higher quality than competing offerings in terms of durability and riding experience. These are therefore more robust than the kick scooter form and are more familiar to those accustomed to driving motorized scooters. They may not look as cool as the Japanese scooters popular throughout the region, but they are far cheaper, smaller and better for the environment.
To support alternative last mile transport, local governments need to focus on making Indian roads more bike and scooter friendly. The road surface quality and encroachment from parked vehicles is one thing, but a culture of safe driving must also be promoted. Without this, micromobility adoption will happen in localized areas and could remain dangerous for users. In terms of making electric vehicles more affordable, the government has taken some positive steps. Most notably a reduction in the custom’s duty for electric vehicles (EVs). Additionally, NITI Aayog, a government think tank, has proposed that only EVs be sold in India by 2030. This would reduce the unit costs for micromobility providers, making them more competitive.
Unfathomable scale and unique potential
It is impossible to consider the potential of the Indian market for micromobility without considering the scale. The US, a country of around 327 million, is projected to have a potential market of roughly $200 billion to $300 billion by 2030. With a population of over one billion, even if India can even provide a fraction of its potential, it will still be one of the largest micromobility markets on the planet.
While in Europe, North America and East Asia there is growing hype around driverless cars, the picture in low and middle income countries like India looks slightly different. These may be less useful in Indian cities that are heavily congested and where the charging infrastructure is a long way off. For this reason, micromobility looks like more suitable long-term option if the cities and provide the infrastructure required. The size of India’s densely urbanized cities pose both a huge challenges, as well as a great opportunity for smart mobility companies. The pollution levels in Indian cities is a serious problem and congestion is legendary. Therefore, there is an undeniable need for cleaner and smaller alternatives. Companies like Yulu have shown that there is an appetite for these alternative mobility modes in a country where two-wheeled vehicles are popular and ownership levels are low. Providing vehicles which are more robust can go some way towards adapting to poor road infrastructure, but the cities themselves need to do more. Until it becomes safer to ride, many will stay away. If, however, India can overcome these problems and provide fertile ground for services to flourish, it could well become a driving force of micromobility growth. No city will be quite as big as Delhi.
Cristina Brox is a Community Manager at Parkbob. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.
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