WalkTransit: A healthy, inexpensive, urban transit for India's cities

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A slideshow in the February 18 issue of the Economic Times describes a concept being discussed by the Ministry of Road Transport for a network of driver-less vehicles to connect New Delhi with Manesar, or New Gurgaon, in the state of Haryana. Developed by Metrino Personal Rapid Transit, the system involves "small, fully automatic, driver-less vehicles called pods" that would travel suspended under an overhead network which itself would be laid over the median of a highway stretch. The news item goes on to say that the pods can seat a maximum of 5 people per pod for individual trips at an average speed of 50 kmph. We are told that the company claims the cost of construction is 50 times less compared to an underground metro - or Rs.40 to Rs.50 crore per km ($6.5 million to $8.2 million at current exchange rates) - with a maximum carrying capacity of 6,000 passengers per direction per hour compared to 3,000 for buses and 40,000 for the metro.

This set me thinking. At Rs.50 crore per km, this would still amount to Rs.2,500 crore (almost a half-billion dollars; more accurately, about $410 million) for a 50 km coverage in any Indian city. Now, imagine (I love the word for its possibilities)...

Imagine there's no metro

Imagine we had a system, just as with the Metrino, of an overhead system running above the road medians which could perform much the same task of transporting people at even less cost of construction - say, Rs.5 crore, or about $820,000 per km. And this system could deliver not one, but multiple gains: transportation of up to 10,000 people per hour in either direction; an encouragement to walk, thus positively impacting the increasing incidence of chronic disease owing to sedentary lifestyles, more involvement in the local community through slower vistas of the surrounding areas and the ability to have leisurely conversations with co-passengers, and the opportunity to reduce local bus services and, therefore, the carbon emissions.

How good could this be? From an engineering perspective, the concept is very old - the first moving walkway was installed at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, followed by one at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. The Beeler Organization, a New York consulting company, proposed a continuous transit system for Atlanta in 1924 that involved a linear induction motor. In 1954, Jersey City in the US deployed the first commercial moving walkway inside a railway station and the first one inside an airport was installed in Dallas in 1958. These were short distance, slow, travelators that can still be seen at many airports around the world.

In the 1970s, Gabriel Bouladon and Paul Zuppiger of Dunlop developed theSpeedaway, a high speed travelator prototype that was demonstrated at the Battelle Institute in Geneva. Their design achieved a maximum speed of 15 kmph and also had a unique differential embarking/disembarking section - a wide walkway, moving at a speed of about 4 kmph and a narrower, high speed, transport section that could achieve the maximum stated speeds. The Speedaway never achieved commercial production and many other attempts followed - the TRAX developed by Dassault in the 1980s and installed at the Paris Invalides metro station; the Loderway Moving Walkway installed at the Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Australia in the 1990s; and the experimental high speed walkway installed at the Montparnasse-Bienvenue metro station in Paris in 2002. The last of these traveled at a maximum speed of 6 kmph (although it could travel faster at 12 kmph but found that people were losing their balance at that speed).

Travelators as inexpensive public transit

Keeping in view the possible constraints - usage by senior citizens and children, maximum usage in local neighborhood areas and not for long-distance commuting, and as a compelling and competitive alternative, but not a substitute, to existing local bus and tramcar systems that would likely need some enticement in the form of comfort and a pleasant traveling experience - this old idea of moving walkways or travelators could be improved upon to provide Indian urban areas with an inexpensive transport. This could even be the magic bullet for Prime Minister Modi's oft-discussed smart city transit planning.

The urban transit travelators could be broad and have a segregated section on the left half for individuals who wish to stand rather than walk with handrail support; and the other half that could accommodate people who wish to walk along with the moving walkway and thus get some exercise as with present-day airport travelators. The whole thing could be enclosed in an air conditioned tubular glass construct to provide passengers with a pleasant and non-polluting experience. The stations could be much smaller, sparse, and simpler with covered escalators to both sides of the road. Of course, many challenges would need to be worked out. The important thing to note is that contemporary travelator designs in Europe that attempted at a fast public transit have generally failed for reasons of complexity and safety. Many of them had a railway station design heuristic that sought to separate much slower moving traffic for people wanting to get off at a station and a faster moving one for those continuing their journey. This likely added unnecessary complexity. For Indian cities the simpler airport design where walkways run for about a 100 meters and then terminate on hard ground (for those wanting to get off to get to nearby gates) and resumption of the walkway about 10 meters further for those continuing to gates further away seems appropriate. This could be adopted with a bus stop design heuristic, where the hard ground termination - or travelator stops - could happen every few hundred meters (with visual and audio announcements) and leading, on both sides, to escalators that take passengers down to each side of the street. These stops, in turn could be integrated with metro stations and bus stops to maximize public transit efficiency and use for long distance commuting.

I don't have numbers, but if the Metrino is expected to cost Rs.50 crore per km with its advanced personalized transportation systems for safety, monitoring, and intelligent management, I would imagine the simple airport-style travelator as an urban transit alternative could possibly be one-tenth, or Rs.5 crore per km. The re-design along the lines described above may double the cost per kilometer which would still be an extraordinarily inexpensive solution to transport 5,000 to 10,000 people per hour in any neighborhood area that otherwise would require relatively expensive bus or tramcar services. As a comparison, an air conditioned bus, such as a Volvo that is now a common sight in the big Indian cities, costs about Rs.1 crore each and can transport about 80 people when full, including standees (most of them run at 50% capacity), meaning you would need 50 such buses costing Rs.50 crore to transport the number of people a travelator could for a fraction of the cost. And that's not counting the impact on traffic congestion, cost of fossil fuel, and pollution from emissions - all of which could be an advantage when you consider that a travelator would run on electricity and will likely cost much less per person.

A healthy spinoff...

Finally, the most important benefit is likely long term and largely inestimable: the opportunity to get people to use and have them exercise to some extent. Indian cities have become notoriously difficult for people to walk and navigate owing to the poor quality of sidewalks, chaotic traffic, high rate of accidents, and extreme pollution. Hence, people have stopped walking and only a few do so in parks. More and more people now use motorized personal transport that adds to the congestion. If a travelator system design could solve for these in very pleasant ways, people might actually use them and make gradual behavioral changes for their own healthy benefit. Not to put too fine a point on it, India is now the "capital" of the major chronic diseases - diabetes (70 to 100 million confirmed cases) and cardiovascular (30% of urban and 15% of the rural population suffer from high BP and 2.5 million die of heart disease annually, according to a recent study). There's a huge cost to society with such life-long diseases in the form of decreased productivity that shaves 1% to 2% from GDP growth, extra expenditure in healthcare that both families and the governments can ill-afford, and a financial and emotional burden that continues to increase in time. There's an epidemic in progress that the government needs to apply its mind to and the solution lies not in drugs but diet and exercise. The government can do little with the former, but certainly can with the latter to promote it.

Medellin's example

Can India rise up to the challenge of re-defining public transportation that could be embraced by other cities around the world for its innovative thinking? The question is worth asking because of the possibilities that it holds. In 2013, Medellin in Columbia, one of the world's most violent cities, was voted the most "innovative city of the year" by the Wall Street Journal. It beat New York City and Tel Aviv for first place. There were many reasons for conferring the honor - among them mobility, buildings and spaces, and participatory citizen budgeting. But one of the most talked about changes to the cityscape was the deployment of a large outdoor escalator system in 2011 that connected poverty-stricken slum neighborhoods along the hillsides to the prosperous valley floor and integrated an otherwise separated city. Slum dwellers could access job opportunities that were out of bounds because of distance. Other out-of-the-box transportation systems in that city included a free, public bicycle system and a much-acclaimed bus rapid transit system. The much preferred and oft-touted word in India today is "inclusiveness" and what better example of this than Medellin's?

I believe that "WalkTransit", an extensive, safe, and innovative travelator system for every neighborhood in the cities represents an opportunity for the Indian government to think radically and set in motion a disruptive, collaborative, public-private partnership (one that has gained a bad reputation in recent years because of past mistakes and scams) involving licensed operators for specific areas in each city, government-owned infrastructure that operators would use, technology companies to provide intelligent systems, discounted ticketing to encourage users to give up or leverage traditional transit, coupons tied to mobile apps that cold document exercise in using the travelators and be used for lower health premiums or doctor consultations or lower personal income tax, mobile payment systems, an efficient and effective regulator, and many more. We are only limited by the scale of our imaginations.



Acknowledgment: Moving Walkway, Wikipedia; The Economic Times, February 18, 2015.

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