Our cities need sustainable mobility

Updated on May 21, 2019 12:22 PM IST

We must see the growth of electric vehicles as an opportunity to create more liveable cities

Growth in EVs in India is not just a question of pushing one technology over another(Pradeep Gaur/ Mint)
Growth in EVs in India is not just a question of pushing one technology over another(Pradeep Gaur/ Mint)
ByArunabha Ghosh and Karthik Ganesan

In 2001, the Reva — India’s first electric car — went on sale. In 2009, as the Nano was launched (a compact affordable car for the masses), China began its New Energy Vehicle initiative focusing on electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). The Nano and the Reva embodied designs for India’s mobility needs: low speed, low pollution, affordable, compact and, most importantly, indigenous to a large degree. Today, as we plan our EV mission and look to China (the world’s leading EV market) to cater to our needs, we must reflect on the momentum we lost. Moving beyond the binary of internal combustion engine versus EV, we need to ask: How can we achieve sustainable mobility to make India’s cities more liveable?

The mobility planning mantra has three elements: avoid, shift and improve. Improved urban design is critical to avoid unnecessary trips. According to the 2011 census, more than 55% of commuters travel less than 5 kilometres (km) every day. So, there is already an embedded benefit of mixed-use planning for our cities. Avoiding motorised trips becomes a challenge, however, with vanishing footpaths and green cover, rising dust levels, temperatures and poorly designed road infrastructure, making it a daunting task for cycling and walking. Behavioural change is part of the strategy, but city master plans must first reduce the need for mobility altogether.

The second step is to nudge a shift in mobility choices. Delhi has nearly as much urban roads as all of Gujarat (~20000 kilometres). If building roads alone could reduce congestion, then Delhi’s remarkable road density should result in jam-free commutes. Our proclivity to build more roads has only made public transport that much less attractive. We analysed potential time savings in using the Delhi Metro (in conjunction with bus) versus only buses in Delhi at different times of the day. For trips over 10 km, the travel time savings range between 12 and 35 minutes during the peak period and savings between 5 and 20 minutes even during the off-peak at 3 pm. Of course, the Metro is more expensive; each minute saved could cost between 0.5 and 2. Unless road congestion is reined in, poorer commuters will be left on congested roads, losing out on productive time and exposing themselves to more pollution.

The dwindling possibility of avoid (given the lack of good urban design) and shift (given the poor levels of investment in making public transport efficient) has meant that the demand for motorised mobility is likely to grow. Our colleagues project the number to rise to 653 million vehicles by 2050, up from the 182 million in 2013. Cars and two-wheelers are expected to drive this growth and dominate the share of on-road vehicles.

This brings us to the third element. Could we improve vehicles by making them more efficient and cleaner? Here, electrification is key and the proverbial silver bullet. The challenges of rolling out charging infrastructure and getting people to shift is universal, but some key concerns for India remain.

The automobile industry is a big contributor to jobs and economic output. While the “average” ICE vehicle powertrain costs 325000, that of an EV powertrain is around 250000, implying there is less in it for manufacturers. CEEW’s forthcoming research indicates that by 2030, unless we indigenise the powertrain and battery pack to a high degree, the economic value creation of an EV-dominated auto sector is likely to be lower.

Another concern is about the critical minerals that would be needed for the batteries. A big push towards EVs for India makes minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and rare-earth elements more critical; they become economically important and their inherent supply risk is high. India is significantly dependent on imports for these minerals. We must focus on optimal battery-sizing, which caters to a majority of the trips and reduces overall material demand. Further, we must establish a formal market for material recovery and recycling. Addressing India’s needs requires us to explore trade agreements with mineral-rich countries but also push for multilateral mechanisms to dissuade against unilateral export restrictions. We cannot let batteries become the new oil.

Growth in EVs in India is not just a question of pushing one technology over another. It is contingent on a more complex milieu comprising urban design, demand management, alternative mobility choices, innovation and industrial policy, and international trade and diplomacy. Looking over the horizon of our currently messy roads, there is still an opportunity to make sustainable mobility the heartbeat of more liveable cities in India.

Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). This article is co-authored by Karthik Ganesan, research fellow, CEEW.

The views expressed are personal

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