The Times of India, March 11, 2020
Udai Singh Mehta, deputy executive director of public policy think-tank Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS), has been focussing on sustainable urban mobility planning. He shares his ideas with Taru Bahl:
How is e-mobility relevant to India’s context?
E-mobility is an effective measure to counter air pollution, a major contributor of which is vehicular pollution. It holds the promise to rejuvenate the auto sector which is going through one of its worst crises due to plateauing of demand among traditional consumers. E-mobility has potential for reconfiguring the transport sector. Its mass integration helps rationalise costs of the electric vehicle ecosystem, for which economics of public and private transport need to be analysed. This is challenging because each city has its own unique mobility landscape. It is difficult to say at this stage to what extent it can address chaotic, overcrowded transportation issues, but one can expect optimal EV integration to compel multiple stakeholders to revisit an urban mobility plan.
What are the biggest deterrents to taking a city level, low carbon mobility plan to scale?
Cities display great amount of diversity and must draw their own mobility plan. Localisation is important and to achieve that, cities need to know the kind of issues they are required to tackle. Numerous authorities such as city transport utility, regional transport office, traffic department, municipal corporation, drive the sector without clarity of goals or accountability or much planning. So the role of political leadership and state transport department becomes absolute.
A critical area of improvement to carry out urban transformation initiatives is building the capacity of local governance bodies. In case of e-mobility, this complexity is greater with electric part and mobility part falling under the concurrent list of the Constitution. Therefore, even though practically such interventions are to be rolled out at city level, governance is layered into central, state, district and local governance bodies. In the absence of compelling leadership, this institutional inertia can be a detriment to reformative initiative or innovation.
Fortunately, electric mobility transition is not entirely dependent on government policy. Cities like Kolkata have been frontrunners of e-mobility without having any state-level policy or city-level plan in place. Technology and economics are key drivers. That being said, the political economy of this transition is going to define how quickly and efficiently we make this transition.
How can city administrations, local governments and domestic industry support the initiative?
The key role of city-level authorities is to modulate the transition to align it with the goals of their respective governing areas. For this, planning and monitoring are critical. E-mobility plan cannot be formulated without effective monitoring of current mobility behaviour and practices. A demand-side assessment of mobility preludes mobility planning; efforts need to be made to map mobility behaviour and practices. A data-oriented approach with comprehensive stakeholder consultation is perhaps the best bet any city can make.
Domestic industry too is at the centre of this transformation. In this regard, three measures are crucial, namely increased investments in research and development, competition and reskilling of human resources. While the first two are driven by the markets, reskilling of the large workforce employed in the domestic formal and informal auto sector calls for attention if a just and inclusive transition is to be ensured.
Are job losses a fallout of the switch to sustainable urban mobility planning and how can this be averted?
Not only job losses, but also gains of newer types of jobs are expected out of this transition. Its political significance is reflected in the draft EV policy documents of various states where the target number of employment generated is often mentioned. Battery technology, powertrains, retrofitting of existing vehicles, all such operational changes would impact the existing ecosystem of auto sector jobs.
What are the cost implications?
Pricing and unit economics of EVs are a major bottleneck to their enhanced uptake. The upfront cost of EVs is higher but running cost lower as compared to an ICE [internal combustion engine] vehicle. Economics itself provides the most obvious solution to this issue: scale and capacity utilisation. Since running cost of EVs is much lower, the more kilometres a vehicle travels in a day the lower is its total cost of ownership. As per one estimate this magic mark is 211km in a day, when some EVs reach parity with ICE vehicles in the same segment. Thus, high priority should be given to segments like shared mobility, freight vehicles, taxi and government vehicles, to name a few. To meet cost economies, a step by step priority-based focus would be preferable to a one size fits all approach.
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