Entrepreneurs Use Mobiles and IT to Tackle Indian Traffic Gridlock

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Around the world, traffic congestion is often accepted as the price paid for rapid development and economic dynamism. But as anyone who lives in a large city knows, a tipping point is soon reached where the congestion begins to harm economic activity by wasting people’s time in lengthy and aggravating commuting, and leaving them frazzled and burned out by the whole experience. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, 95 percent of congestion growth in the coming years will come from developing countries. Even in developed countries like the United States, in 2000, the average driver experienced 27 hours of delays (up seven hours from 1980) (MIT Press). This balloons to 136 hours in Los Angeles.

Developing countries are growing their vehicle numbers by between 10 and 30 percent per year (World Bank). In economic hotspots, growth is even faster. In India, the cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore account for five percent of the nation’s population but have 14 percent of the total registered vehicles. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kenya, Mexico and Chile, 50 percent of cars are in the capital cities (www.peopleandplanet.net).

India’s Koolpool is stepping in with a 21st century upgrade to the old concept of carpooling. India’s first carpooling service (in which drivers share rides to reduce congestion and save money) uses the power of the country’s mobile phone network to link up people by SMS (short message service) text. Already launched in Mumbai, it is being rolled out in other cities as well.

Koolpool surveyed Indian drivers and found that the average car only had two passengers. Koolpool is an idea from the Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN), a registered charity with the mandate to come up with innovative solutions to environmental and infrastructure problems. Its goal is to prove “low-cost and high efficiency IT-based solutions are the way of the future. With no gestation period and minimal investment, they are profitable and more importantly for us, people friendly.” Koolpool claims that an increase from 1.7 passengers per vehicle to 2.04 will decrease travel time and pollution levels by 25 percent. It also claims to be the first carpooling service to combine SMS text messaging and IT.

Ride-givers send a text message to Koolpool just before going down a major road. Koolpool then sends a list of ride seekers on the route, their membership identifications, the designated stopping point for pick-up, number of riders and login time. If there are no ride givers on that route, then ride seekers are pooled together to get a taxi and share the costs. Members of Koolpool pay an annual membership fee and exchange credits by mobile phone between ride seekers and ride givers, which are then redeemed at gas stations for petrol.

And Koopool comes at just the right time: congestion in India will probably only get worse in the near term, as the government pledges to build even more roads and make the country’s cities “the flyover capital of Asia”.

In Kolkata, says Sudarsanam Padam, former director of the Central Institute of Road Transport in the city of Pune, the average speed during peak hours in the central business district (CBD) area is as low as seven km/hr. Bangalore currently has average speeds of about 13-15 km/hr in its CBD, but this is expected to go down to three to eight km/hr in the next 15 years, according to the city’s police traffic commissioner, M N Reddi.

Resources

  • Mobility 2001: World Mobility at the End of the Twentieth Century and its Sustainability published by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

  • Another Indian car pooling business allows people to post requests for rides on an internet bulletin board, Car Sales India.

  • Another solution to traffic congestion has been the motorcycle taxi. Beginning in Thailand, motorcycle taxis can now be found in Cambodia, India and the UK. Read more at here.

  • SENSEable City: A project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SENSEable City Laboratory to use the new generation of sensors and hand-held electronics to change how cities are understood and navigated. This includes creating real-time maps of cities that can then be used to help with avoiding traffic congestion and other problems.

  • Read more about India’s traffic congestion problem by India’s only science and environment biweekly online newsletter, Down to Earth.

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