Urban Transport Challenges and Solutions

By Cheng Zhi Wei

During one of the plenary sessions on Sustainable Mobility at the recent Clean Energy Expo Asia 2011 Conference, Mr Vivek Vaidya, Vice President, Automotive Practice Asia Pacific, Frost & Sullivan, shared his findings on the challenges and constraints faced in tackling the urban transport conundrum. His recommended solutions involve a mix of better public transport, new and innovative mobility solutions and most importantly, a shift in mindset.

People typically prefer private transport to public alternatives, and the reason for this is the difference in perceived comfort levels, says a consumer research study conducted by Mr Vaidya. In his study, consumers were asked to compare public and private transport in four areas – value, speed, comfort and overall impression. The results for value and speed were very close but there was a stark difference in comfort, leading to a higher overall impression for private transport.

This naturally presents a problem for the future of urban transport. If people value private transport so highly, as they get wealthier – as is the case with urbanization and industrialization – they would look to switch from public transport to private transport. Consumers would look to owning a car when their income rises. This could inevitably lead to road congestion, regardless of how wide the roads are. There is a need to change this fundamental mindset for no amount of highway lanes can cope with this increasing torrent of private vehicles.

Congestion is itself a manifestation of inefficiency. People and vehicles are stuck in transit, doing nothing but burning fuel and waiting for the road to clear. Very few people are able to be productive while stuck in traffic and the vehicles barely move faster than 50 kilometres per hour. This inherently inefficient scene is compounded by several factors. Firstly, as populations grow and more people own cars, the level of congestion will only get worse. In addition, many countries lack the culture of car-pooling and car-sharing. Both of these schemes help to reduce the number of cars on the road and increase the efficiency of private transport. Coupled with the inefficiencies of the car as a mode of transport, these circumstances give a gloomy outlook for the future of our transport systems and environment.

Given the magnitude of the problem, it needs to be tackled with both short-term and long-term measures. In the short-term, countries and governments need to look into curbing the number of cars on the roads. There is no net improvement in expanding the transport infrastructure if the number of cars is not pegged to increase at a slower rate. Singapore has established a Certificate of Entitlement system that effectively functions to control the number of cars on the road albeit with some time lags.

Also, more can be done to encourage car-pooling and car-sharing. These schemes required only a slight change in consumer behaviour and can be implemented at all technology levels. However, the challenge for these schemes is still the mindset of consumers revolving around the convenience of owning a personal vehicle.

As the alternative to private transport, public transport has to be improved. From the results of the study conducted, it is clear that comfort levels on public transportation need to increase greatly if consumers are to make a deliberate decision to switch back to public transport. Furthermore, in many countries, the public transport system is so underdeveloped that consumers are forced to use private transport. To remedy this problem, governments need to start investing and developing public transport immediately. These developments will take time to complete and delaying them will only compound the problems in the future.

The problems of current modes of transport are well-known and companies are already looking to develop new and innovative modes of transport that are more sustainable alternatives to today’s options. One such alternative is electric vehicles. These are vehicles that are powered solely by batteries and do not have an internal combustion engine. They do not emit carbon during use and may represent the future of cars. Another innovation is being termed as last-mile solutions. These are meant to complement the public transport system and bring consumers that additional ‘mile’ to their destination. One such solution is the YikeBike from EV Hub Pte Ltd, an electric foldable bike with a range of 10km.

However, the most effective solution is to change the way people view private and public transport. There needs to be a fundamental shift in mindset. As mentioned above, if every consumer still insists on owning a private car, no amount of public transport and innovation will change the problem of congestion. Also, consumer mindset play an important role in whether initiatives like car-pooling will succeed.

Ultimately, it is impossible to remove private transport from our transport system completely. The challenge is to limit its role in the grand scheme of things and optimize its use to bring about maximum benefit (and minimum inefficiency).

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