At the International Transport Forum (https://twitter.com/ITF_Forum) conference in Leipzig earlier this year, I heard from Alain Flausch, secretary general of the UITP, that buses, urban rail and trams have been the original pioneers of the sharing economy.
That is undoubtedly true, and they continue to innovate by incorporating new technologies into operations, and for passenger information. What is more, the traditional operators providing universal service also see the new entrants as partners, who can extend their reach through regular services or exclusive PT partnerships.
Not so in India, though. Here, a massive surge in demand for public transport and a struggling public sector with outmoded technology combined with lack of investment have created an enormous unserved market, ripe for picking by entities such as Uber.
Thus, Uber Everything is all set to crop the surplus that could have been easily mopped up by public operators, but who are now left with passengers who will readily migrate to affordable, comfortable and modern alternatives.
I can imagine an 15 to 18 seater air-conditioned bus (Picture below shows Force Motors small bus for route operations) operated by Uber Everything with Real Time Passenger Information along defined arteries finding commuters flocking to it in droves. That is the traffic that the local monopoly bus operator could have got, if it had planned ahead.
Most Indian cities have under-performing bus systems. They have uncomfortable buses built on lorry chassis without damped suspensions, with a floor height of 1,100 mm on average. Their seats are not designed with normal ergonomic considerations, but for maximised revenue. They have no GPS in most cities, perhaps with the exception of Bengaluru’s BMTC. Thus, they have no linkages with smartphone applications, and cannot provide much-needed real time information to passengers either on phones or at bus stops or termini.
Chennai offers rich potential
In such a milieu, it is inevitable that an Uber Everything, which is reportedly to be trialed in Bengaluru, finds excellent support, just as its recently launched UberPool has. Chennai, with its Old Mahabalipuram Road (Rajiv Gandhi Expressway or IT corridor), St. Thomas Mount-Sriperumbudur artery of manufacturing units, and the Chennai – Chengalpattu GST Road with residential, commercial and IT presence, is also a ready – and rich – prospect for such an arrangement.
At the Leipzig 2015 ITF forum, David Ploufe, the senior vice-president for policy and strategy at Uber said "Uber and other services like Zipcar and Bla bla car are part of a new mobility ecosystem." Since then, the phenomenon has only grown stronger, and expanded to several new cities around the world, including India.
It will be interesting to watch how this experiment fares, although there is little doubt that if it is allowed to operate with minimal regulation (as Chennai is allowing unregulated share autos to run services by the thousands already), travel demand management will enter a whole new era.
If traditional bus systems are intelligent, they will run high capacity systems between termini, along well-recognised routes, leaving the small bus system of the sharing economy to connect these termini with neighbourhoods.