A Q&A with OP Agarwal on what type of thinking will get us out of our cars
OP Agarwal is an ardent supporter of public transportation, just not the way you might think. As our Mumbai–Pune hyperloop project progresses, we had the privilege of speaking with OP to discuss the future of mass transportation and how emerging technologies like hyperloop can best support India’s exceptional growth trajectory.
OP Agarwal is a highly respected expert and thought leader on the forefront of the new urban mobility paradigm. emerging in India. For three decades, OP served as a member of the Indian Administrative Service and is currently CEO of World Resources Institute India (WRI), a research organization that turns big ideas into action at the nexus of environment, economic opportunity, and human well-being.
With India’s 14 existing megaregions. projected to hold 17% of its population while producing 40% of the nation’s GDP by 2030, we discussed how intra-city and inter-city transportation can support the rise of India’s megaregions and the 100 million jobs needed by 2030.
Between 2018 and 2030, the population of Delhi is projected to surpass that of Tokyo and increase by more than 10 million, while Tokyo’s population is projected to decline by almost 900,000. This represents a sea change in the global economy as half of India’s current population is under the age of 25. How can transportation solutions support the career ambitions and quality of life for India’s vibrant young workforce?
Agarwal: I know what Delhi feels like today. Thinking about 50 million people...that kind of number just can’t fit in a single city. These numbers will spread. Many Indian cities are already growing outwards, expanding to include satellite cities. People are living in one place and working at another which is much further away primarily because housing is easier in the satellite city and various other quality of life factors.
You have an economic interdependence emerging between urban areas. By 2050, I think we will see not individual cities, but instead large urban clusters of 150-190 million people, with rapid transit connecting industries and residences over a much wider geographic area.
With these much larger urban clusters, there will be a critical need for rapid connectivity. And that's where we need to start thinking of the kind of project that Virgin Hyperloop One is doing.
The spatial constraints will play out two-fold: One, within the city we need to focus on systems which will persuade people to give up their cars by giving them a public transport system which meets their quality expectations. We simply don’t have the space to expand the current fleet of personal vehicles. Two, we need to start thinking about transportation systems at a regional level and provide rapid connectivity between city clusters.
If you don't have good connectivity and public transport networks within the city, people will tend to take their own way. If you don’t improve rapid inter-city transport, you can’t support the economic interdependence of the clusters. Transportation fundamentally opens up a wider set of opportunities. When you can connect clusters of cities, your labor market, your employment market, is much bigger. People have more choices.
By 2030, India is forecasted to surpass the U.S., earning the title of the world’s second largest economy. With the rise of this economic prowess comes enormous opportunity to define the future of cities in India. What transportation decisions need to be made today to support this growth trajectory?
Agarwal: India has about 18% of the world's population and only 2% of the world's land mass. We really have to get out of this concept of individually owned cars and motorbikes as we have in India; we simply don’t have the space. We need to move towards systems which are much more focused on mobility as a service, for example one where you buy a ride – across various modes – vs buying a car.
We are currently trapped in an urban transportation paradigm, where public transport is seen as an option only for those who can’t afford a personal vehicle. We need to shift this perspective if we expect people to give up their cars. There must be an affordability aspect to public transport, but it’s also fundamentally about a perception of quality. There are certain quality parameters people are looking for: they want a seat on the vehicle, they want a schedule that aligns to their travel pattern (not the other way around), women don't want to be harassed. We need to start working very systematically and aggressively to deliver this quality of service. It doesn’t need to be one single mode, but rather a multimodal system that can take care of your origin-destinations with a comfortable ride. That is when people will give up their cars. Not just because it limits congestion or air pollution, but because it makes their lives more enjoyable.
You have said “the distinction between public and private transport will be blurred.” How can the public and private sector work together in a way that promotes innovation and efficiency while also delivering on economic and social equity goals?
Agarwal: I think the public sector can be very good at determining what kind of transport system we want and where we want it. Once they've done that, they should contract services from the private sector. The private sector can provide a level of operational efficiency that public systems cannot. These two have to somehow come together – I think the London model is a good model.
The London model highlights how the issue of governance is very important. Contrary to London’s unified structure, Delhi has as many as 11 agencies that work on transportation alone. Today, in Delhi, we have one company running the Metro and we actually have two companies running buses. There are gaps in between. The question becomes, “who's going to build and manage that interchange station? Is it going to be the Metro company or is it going to be the bus company?” That’s why I think an overarching agency that can take responsibility for transport in its entirety would be most effective.
The jurisdiction for this agency could even extend to the entire multi-city cluster. For example, if we want the hyperloop between Mumbai and Pune, we will need somebody who will provide intra-city movement within Pune and within Mumbai. I think that's the role for the government, not to operate those systems, but to instead provide strong oversight and some scheme of rewards and penalties to ensure proper coverage and quality service.
Today we are facing accelerating consumer demands – for fast, on–demand, seamless transport – as well as energy demands for zero emission, 100% electric solutions with efficient utilization. We haven’t seen a new mode of transportation in over 100 years; what do you see as the role of emerging technologies to support both of these imperatives?
Agarwal: I think the transition to electric would be a good thing to happen in India. For a number of reasons, number one of course is air quality. 14/15 of the world’s most polluted cities, based on air quality, are in India. Second, we spend a huge amount on importing petroleum fuels and international price changes play havoc with our budgets. Third, there are climate change benefits with electric mobility and as the country is moving towards the higher share of renewables in its electricity mix it makes more sense to have electric vehicles.
India has a unique opportunity for electrification that might look very different than the rest of the world. This is driven by two factors: one, our motor vehicle fleet, and two, the nature of trips in India. Around 75% of our vehicle fleet are two wheelers. Typically, no one would do more than 40-50 kilometers per day on a motorbike. Densities within Indian cities are relatively higher so trip lengths are lower. This means the range anxiety you see in the West, this “how will I be able to travel 100 km on one charge” is not as much of a factor in India.
This opens up the opportunity for smaller, cheaper batteries, or even batteries rental/swapping schemes which I think could be a very beneficial model in India. While still early stages, business are beginning to explore this market. The potential is enormous for a majority electric vehicle fleet which allows for much lower operating costs.
An interesting capability of our all-electric VHO system is the capability to rapidly stabilize the electric grid to prevent blackouts and support renewable energy. As India transitions to more electrified transportation, what sort of considerations are there for the grid?
Agarwal: That is a very good question and something that not many have thought of. But of course, it's not going to be electrification overnight. It's something that will take 10 or 15 years.
After this 10 or so year period, the question then becomes not only ‘how much electricity are you using’ but also ‘when are you using it?’ It’s is an issue of the instantaneous load. Unlike water which can be stored and used when you want, with electricity today, you can't do that. So, at some point in time we will need to see time-of-day pricing for electricity, where electricity is priced differently depending on what is the peak and what is your off peak. This way demand can adjust to when the prices are the lowest. This scheme would open up opportunities for a battery swapping market where you can ride your motorbike until the battery runs out and then swap for a charged one at a nearby retailer. The retailer could then maximize its profit by charging when prices and demand for electricity are lowest.
In your book “Emerging Paradigms in Urban Mobility: Planning, Finance and Implementation” you quote Albert Einstein saying, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.” What thinking do we need to change to address the rising congestion and pollution in cities today?
Agarwal:This immediately attracted me. We always think of public transport that's fixed route, fixed schedule. Why can't we get a little more flexible on that? Why is Uber Pool not public transport? If I take one more person along with me, it's public transport.
The Motor Vehicles Act that we have in India, the regulation that we have in India, needs to catch up with the kind of changes happening in the transportation market. The kind of thinking that went behind the Motor Vehicles Act, largely in the 1930s, has to change in the 2030s!
Creating high quality intra-city public transport system need not be Metro Rail alone, or standard public buses alone. We could think of app-based services, of vehicles carrying about 8-10 people that could provide on-demand shared rides throughout the city.
You know the dream I have is if I want to travel say from wherever I am to the airport, for example, and say to this app, “look I have 15 minutes and I have a million dollars that I can pay the system” then it would immediately tell me “your helicopter is waiting for you right there.” Or, if I say “look I have seven hours in which I can reach my destination and I'm not willing to pay anything,” it will give me a walking route. Between these two extremes can we think of a system where an app can give me choices which deliver a perfect level of service beyond using a personal vehicle.
This type of service is increasingly demanded. The younger generation is not enamored by the car or the motorbike. The younger generation, in India at least, is looking for a smartphone. They have no time for driving but they need all the time for the Twitter and Facebook – I think that's very good. My daughter used to work in Bangalore and I kept pushing her, “buy a car, buy a car." I told her “I'll buy it for you, I'll pay for it.” She refused. She said “no. why do I want a car?” Finally, she said “if you want to give me something get me a good smartphone.” That's where I see hope in the younger generation and the wave of opportunity for India's next urban mobility paradigm.