17 Mar 2016

Efficient Road Transport

What could we do to make road transport in our cities more efficient?

To begin with, we could have higher utilisation of each vehicle — multiple people in cars and on bikes.

Bigger vehicles also help reduce traffic, in areas where there’s enough demand to make them viable. There’s a continuum of vehicles from metros  and buses to big vans (20-seater) to small vans (10-seater) to cars with multiple passengers in them. The optimal vehicle size depends on traffic in that area, which in turn depends on the time of day.

All roads need to have congestion pricing so that the road doesn’t become a tragedy of the commons. Each junction should have a camera that reads your license plate and electronically levies a charge. This should be set so that traffic is always flowing as fast and as smoothly as it does at 4 AM. Congestion pricing will drive passengers to bigger vehicles, making better use of road capacity. We don’t need more roads; we just need to make better use of the roads we have.

Smaller vehicles are more likely to take you to your destination directly, without a transfer. It’s much easier to find 10 people going from C.V.Raman Nagar to Koramangala than it is to find 50.

One more optimisation comes from getting rid of the driver. Instead of paying a driver to go some place, better to tag along with someone already driving there in his or her own car. Then, you are saving on the driver’s salary, fuel and wear and tear of the vehicle.

Car buyers could also be more disciplined and scientific in selecting a car. They should select one that has a low cost per km, even if costs more upfront. Or if a car lasts longer, then a higher upfront cost becomes amortised over more kilometers, so it costs less per kilometer.

If I were buying a car to drive for Uber, I’d outsource the selection to the manufacturer. I can imagine leasing a car for 1 lac km or two years, whichever comes first. The car company would pay for the upfront cost of the car, fuel, maintenance and insurance. And when the kilometers or years are up, the car goes back to the car company. This will force car companies to compete on what really matters the most — the cost per km. This will align incentives.

Electric cars are excellent at this, with a high upfront cost and low running costs. Shared cars will run for more kilometers than decicated ones, so it becomes cheaper to buy an electric car. The cars could charge during off-peak hours, like night or afternoon, when there’s less demand. Turn a disadvantage (no customers right now) into an opportunity (charge). That will also give an opportunity for a human driver to sleep in the afternoon, so that they can work from early morning to late night, safely and sustainably.

These are all ways by which we can optimise the hellish traffic on our roads, without having to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building metros in all our cities. No objection to building metros, but let’s grab the low-hanging fruit first.

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