One initiative, many perspectives: the Indian Smart Cities Mission – Part 2!

My last blog post on the UnderReform project covered some of the dialogue we have had with stakeholders about what kind of initiative the Smart Cities Mission is. In this post, I focus on one of our core interests which was to understand what was happening in terms of changing governance relationships. We can only see some of this, as we have yet to speak with national level stakeholders (underway this week!).

administration army banner border

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However, the introduction of a competition for funding marks a major departure in the way Indian government works. This has been generally welcomed by our interviewees, albeit that these are the winners of the funds. The process of implementation is of particular interest. The initiative is delivered through SPVs, constituted of local and state actors with private sector funding also drawn in. The SPVs are scrutinised by, and report to, central government. They are accountable for spending against profile and on projects in the agreed areas or on specified pan-area initiatives. The SPVs are largely staffed by private sector consultants to draw in skills and innovation whilst being able to bypass the pay structures and bureaucracy of the Indian Civil Service. We will be exploring this further, as whilst it may make for a more effective delivery mechanism for funding, it has a number of potential implications:

  • This seems to work against the general principles of devolution of powers and funding through the 74th The ways in which the money are channelled and the high levels of scrutiny of expenditure and programme suggest strong centralising behaviours.
  • The decision to deliver the projects through an SPV builds on previously successful models (e.g. Delhi Metro). Whilst it seems to enable access to different skills, the SPVs are only scheduled to last five years and there are risks that there will be little or no capacity building within the local government as a result of the SCM.
  • The strong emphasis on spend and delivery of programme may be limiting participation and debate in the projects and programmes. Whilst we see evidence of increased e-participation initiatives this is not accessible to everyone and it seems to focus on consultation on implementation rather than on needs in the first place.

In writing this update, I have deliberately tried to focus on questions of what is rather than what should be. There are many more statements and comments on the latter rather than the former both more broadly in the literature, the media and even in our interviews. At this stage we feel it critical to focus our efforts on what has actually been happening before we can make conclusions regarding implications on issues such as how this relates to development needs in India, democratic processes, participation, implementation and outcomes for the public. What is clear is that the SCM is a fascinating case to study because of its implications for narratives of development and modes of governing. Some of these might be more significant in the longer term than the specific details of the SCM itself.

We are keen to develop and share this debate as broadly as possible. Please get in touch via the website, the twitter feed @underreform or through one of our forthcoming presentations:

  • World Conference on Transport Research Special Session, Mumbai – May 2019
  • International Public Policy Association, Montreal – June 2019
  • Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference, London, August 2019

All Change? DfT Responds to Commission on Travel Demand Report

At the start of this month the Permanent Secretary, Bernadette Kelly issued a letter responding to the Commission on Travel Demand’s All Change report which can be downloaded here. This felt like a major step as the Commission has no formal footing and so the Department in turn has no requirement to respond. It is clear from their response that the reason they did so was because they welcome the open engagement and collaborative working methods of the Commission. I think the Commission has had so much traction because there are some significant trend changes which we still do not know how to explain or which sit outside our traditional ways of approaching understanding travel demand. So, I’m really positive about the on-going dialogue which is continuing into our next inquiry into shared mobility.

What did the response actually say though? What has changed and what is being looked at?

First, there are various pieces of work which have been published since All Change. First, Road Traffic Forecasts 2018, which reinforced the importance of understanding why trip rates are declining. A scenario where this trend continues will likely produce a different set of investment needs. More recently a piece of econometric work on car travel which tried to consider differences across age, gender, region, employment, family and household structure. This sort of analysis is really important as it can unpick the rate of change of likelihood to take up a license, own a car and drive it. The report finds that income is becoming less important as an explanatory over time and that the cohort effects are important. However, as it acknowledges – this does not explain why these trends are happening and that is where we really need to look outside our existing tools and mindsets.

Work is underway to unpick some of the social trends, in particular on ageing. It is worth noting that the central ONS forecast of population growth shows around 85% of the growth in UK population as being in the over 65s. It is crucial therefore to know more about how mobility needs and patterns change with aging and to what extent the motivations which are assumed about the purpose and value of different attributes might also change.


A second key issue which I think sits unresolved, is the challenge of wanting to promote lower demand futures at a local level. Without clarity about why trip rates are declining and an understanding of under which circumstances this might be economically beneficial, simply presenting a lower demand future as your likely local scenario sets your scheme at a disadvantage relative to an area which does not make that assumption. So, whilst the Department is keen to emphasise the flexibility of Webtag, the realities on the ground would seem to stifle more than incremental change.

The Department is developing its monitoring and evaluation database and is continuing work to develop the accessibility of the National Transport Model without committing to open source access. Coupled with the consultation on Appraisal and Modelling Strategy the Department continues, to my mind, to be committed to an open engagement process around its evidence base and this has to be welcome.

Work also appears to be underway to consider alternative approaches to assessing the potential for different investments to make sense in a range of demand futures. My colleague at Leeds, Katy Roelich is working with Transport for Greater Manchester on adaptive decision-making approaches and the Department’s response welcomes the sharing of findings about alternative approaches. Whilst making changes to how advice is developed is not a trivial matter, the door is open.

The Committee on Climate Change has welcomed the All Change report, with it featuring significantly in the 2018 Progress Report to Parliament and Lord Deben’s letter to the Secretary of State for Transport. The Department’s response stated that it “recognise[s] the importance of understanding the implications of different demand forecasts on the reductions needed to meet our carbon targets and will work with the CCC to consider how best to do this” so we can hopefully look forward to a new set of analysis on this in the 2019 Progress Report.

A final reflection on the Department’s response is that, perhaps understandably, we are still looking to explain trends in travel patterns largely through a transport lens. This has been true of other organisations and industry groupings I have presented to over the past year. Demand shifts remain something that are happening and that should be understood, but largely through the variables we have always used. Whilst there is merit in this approach it is limited. There is still room and need to open up our insight. Shifting demand is, as a result, not yet a central policy proposition. It might need to be, to meet climate change commitments and it might ‘ought to be’ if lower travel lifestyles are becoming more feasible and attractive. Much work remains to be done to test those propositions and to rethink how we understand travel demand. The Commission will continue to play its part in contributing to this debate and the Department’s knowledge base over the next five years as part of the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (see our new inquiry launch on shared mobility). It has only been able to do so through acting as a meeting house for ideas and evidence from a wide range of stakeholders. We hope that you will also come with us on that journey and bring in others along the way.

One initiative, many perspectives: the Indian Smart Cities Mission

timelapse photo of train

Photo by Rohit Gangwar on

The UnderReform project is 10 months into a two-year study of the Smart Cities Mission in India (SCM). With interview and documentary analysis coming in from Jaipur and Bengaluru and work about to begin in Kochi and Indore it feels an opportune time to share some initial thoughts about what we are finding.

The first observation is that there is a blurring between the broad notion of Smart Cities and the actual implementation process of the SCM. The narratives of increasingly smart, intelligent automated brains running traffic systems and ideas of India leapfrogging stages in the development of its urban areas are commonplace. The global narratives of smart are everywhere. From a symbolic perspective therefore, the initiative has helped develop and embed the language of smart in the everyday vernacular of policy.

20180917_122921Whilst the language of smart is now in the everyday of policy, the exposure to ‘smart’ will feel disjointed when considered from a lived experience perspective. Most initiatives are focused on investments in specific areas, although there are some pan-city projects. New smart solutions also coexist alongside places lacking even basic infrastructure for walking in some cases.

Our project is trying to understand the SCM, how it is changing governance in Indian cities and what this means for outcomes. So whilst people can talk about smart, the description of what the SCM is and what it is changing is much more fuzzy in the case evidence to date. In Bengaluru, the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) due to be established to deliver the SCM work has been slow in development. The choice of projects also overlaps with initiatives that were underway before the SCM, so what is specific to the SCM, compared with other innovations, has been less clear. It could be that the lack of distinctiveness of the SCM in Bengaluru is because the size of the funding available is small relative to other ongoing initiatives. In Jaipur, by contrast, the focus of the SCM on the historic core provides a clearer boundary, although there remains confusion (or perhaps a deliberate blending) amongst actors one step distance from the SCM itself as to what is being done under the SCM programme. Perhaps this would be the case in any context, but the general fuzziness of decision-making structures on urban transport in Indian cities seems to be a contributing factor. Simply drawing a stakeholder map is a challenge for not only the research team, but also the stakeholders on the ground.

I’ll be posting some further reflections on the ways in which the SCM is changing urban governance in the coming week.

2050 Road Traffic Forecasts: Starker Choices

The recent publication of the Department for Transport’s National Road Traffic Forecasts to 2050 throws up some major challenges to the field of transport planning. Whilst this is a set of forecasts for England and Wales it provides a set of questions that go well beyond that scale. Some initial reflections, drawing on the work of the Commission on Travel Demand are set out below, although there will no doubt be more to debate.

Greater Transparency

The first point to make is that it is only possible to have a debate about the strength, purpose and future of road traffic forecasting because of the high level of transparency which the Department for Transport has brought to this. This practice is a further development of the 2015 report and includes much greater reflection on the performance of previous forecasts, variations across areas and road types.  For example, the report notes that three of the scenarios from the 2015 forecasts consistently overpredicted road traffic levels between 2010 and 2017 as shown below.


More generally, it is worth observing that none of the sets of assumptions appeared to track the outturn particularly well.

There is also a high degree of transparency as to what has been done to change the model, where to find more details of this, what the assumptions in each of the scenarios tested in RTF2018 are and how they work in different regions. This includes a broader array of tests than those in RTF2015, most notably high and low migration scenarios, a scenario which includes 100% ZEV sales by 2040 and another scenario which includes a continuation of the decline in trip rates.

Starker Choices

The purpose of RTF is clearly stated as not to be indicative of desirable futures or likely futures. It is here then that the range of outcomes from RTF2018 defines the debates that should be at the forefront of transport policy today. For me these include:

  • How are any scenarios being run which are not consistent with our Climate Change Obligations? Only one scenario has decarbonisation of the car fleet by 2050 with a reduction in CO2 of 76%. However, the other six have just 25% of miles travelled by ZEVs by 2050. This is not even as ambitious as the goals set out in Road to Zero. The smallest reduction implied by these scenarios is a 17% reduction in CO2 which simply cannot sit alongside the reduction pathways the CCC has set out. As such, they should not, in my view, be being conisdered as part of a meaningful future scenario set.
  • Do we want to allow motoring costs to decline and how should we manage the transition to electric vehicles? In the absence of any other assumption on changing electricity prices, the scenario with decarbonisation of the fleet has the largest increases in road traffic by 2050 – 51% – a massive 16% higher than the reference case. If this is not remedied then, looking at the other metrics on congestion and journey times (increases of 75% in lost time), the pressure would be for a major roads programme to reduce these impacts. This would amount to massive infrastructure investment and associated environmental damage in order to compensate for additional demand which results from the reduced cost of driving. Where would the tax take come from in order to fund this kind of programme given that fuel duty would largely disappear from general taxation? This has been much trailled as an issue – but if RTF is to inform policy, rather than just roads investment decisions, then it is difficult to see how this can be ignored.
  • Should we create lower demand futures? One of the intriguing quotes in the report is “research was unable to provide an explanation for the reduction in average trip rates over time leading to significant uncertainty about future trajectories”. One scenario runs with the assumption that the past two decades worth of trip reductions continue. The other six presume they stop. That seems like an unfairly stacked assumption (stabilisation deemed more likely or at least of greater interest to decision-makers) with no middle ground. However, the scenario with declining trip rates shows up some very important results. Only 8% of traffic in congested conditions compared with 7% today (and 16% in the highest growth scenario!). The Commission on Travel Demand was unequivocal in stating the need to understand the change in trip rates around which so many other assumptions hang. Is it possible to develop policies that support a decline in trip rates and deliver greater well-being? Given the difference the answer to this question makes to perceptions of future investment need it is now a priority to address.

Whilst it is not the place of RTF2018 to set out the policy response, it seems necessary for bodies like the Transport Select Committee to make sure that this follow through does happen.


Longer term relevance

If, as is contested in the Future of Mobility grand challenge, we can anticipate a radical reshaping of our transport networks then the very structure of the relationships between income, technology, activities and mobility will themselves be quite different. What then for the insights from RTF? The report states that RTF continues to produce “reliable and robust forecasts provided the most up to date evidence is used, the model is calibrated to a recent year and government QA procedures are followed”. It seems to me, more than ever, that whilst a well calibrated and up to date baseline is a good thing, the pursuit of accuracy in the short run does not help with dealing with uncertainty in the long run.

The RTF2018 makes an initial attempt to review the potential impacts of CAVs on the future travel demands on our network. It is systematic in setting out the many assumptions that need to be made and draws on the scant evidence that is available to do so. The answers, with all their health warnings, are in line with preliminary findings from elsewhere (which could be group think!) – CAVs could see traffic grow from between 5% and 55% depending on the amount of sharing that occurs. However, the policy framework matters to where we might end up here, just as it does for the pricing of transport with ZEVs.

At the end of this, we remain faced with a huge range of relevant uncertainty – from CAVs, from ZEVs and from disruptive mobility models as well as broader social change which we have only partial insights on. If we are serious about making decisions with a 2050 time frame in mind then we cannot take these changes as exogenous in the same way we might with GDP or population. The future has to be shaped and we require different policy frameworks and options to be set out so that there can be proper debate about what are looking like increasingly starker choices between future demand pathways.

Why better choices are bad for transport policy

Better buses, a new tram network, segregated cycle lanes and improved pedestrian areas. I am a big fan of all of those options as part of the mix to allow cities to move people around in ways which work for the economy and the environment. I must therefore be in favour of improving travel choices right?
Of course, the idea of providing better travel conditions for people to travel has to be a good thing. However, that’s pretty much where I go cold on the idea of transport policy being about ‘better choices’. Choice is largely associated with enabling individuals to “do the right thing”. It is here that the logic breaks down in ways which go on to backfire on policy.

In the Commission on Travel Demand report, we looked at evidence on the travel of younger people from Kiron Chatterjee and Noreen McDonald. It shows a very significant reduction in miles travelled by car by 18-30 year olds over the past two decades. The reasons for this include delayed parenting, staying in education longer, rising costs of insurance, increased urbanisation, changing employment patterns, increased use of social media and ICT. They conclude that “it is not possible to quantify the importance of each of these factors or to say the order in which they began to exert an influence. They should be treated as interconnected phenomena”. So where does choice feature in this? These are largely structural changes so the extent to which choice explains change is really quite limited.

Work by Scott Le Vine and colleagues also looked at changing commute patterns and found that we make 20% fewer commute trips in the UK than back in the mid 1990s. This is again down to a complex mix of changing employment structures, increased female participation in the workplace, more people working for themselves, more people working from multiple places and some increase in home working. These changes not ascribable to individual choice so even though individuals make a choice about their travel this again does not equate to choice explaining what they do.

So, the problem comes when the vast majority of changes in travel behaviour are for ‘non transport reasons’ and not because of travel preferences and ‘better choices’. When you then try to play back the “sustainable choice” agenda to people there is therefore a very mixed reaction. “I didn’t choose for house prices to be beyond my reach”, “I didn’t choose to be put on a four day week” “I didn’t choose for the nearest healthcare facility to close”. There is also an important strand of work which recognises that some people are driving even though they cannot afford to do so given other indicators of material deprivation. Driving is not so much a choice here but a necessity to overcome job insecurity and lack of security of housing tenure.
So, where does this leave us in terms of policy goals? My instinctive reaction is to suggest that we should be focussed on outcomes and so should be delivering better neighbourhoods, healthier citizens and more productive cities. This will mean privileging some modes over others – i.e. promoting some choices whilst reducing others (another reason why choice falls down as an argument!), some user groups over others, some areas over others and some technologies over others. It makes us have to argue what we are doing things for rather than hiding behind a notion that we can carry on with ever wider choices in a world without trade-offs. I think choice has been a convenient fig leaf which has been used to cover up repeated failings to tackle the major externalities of transport of the past decades. Perhaps its time to choose a different path?

A trillion reasons to think about how much we travel

Today marks the launch of the first report of the Commission on Travel Demand, All Change? The future of travel demand and the implications for policy and planning. It marks the culmination of 18 months of evidence gathering and debate with contributions from industry, government, NGOs and academia.

This is not a report about flying taxis or futuristic promises of systems that can get people to further flung places faster. It is a report grounded in the realities of today and it challenges some of the taken-for-granted narratives which define the transport system.

First, in the UK, per capita there has been a decline in how often and how far we travel for the past two and a bit decades. Even though, for example, we have had population growth and employment has never been higher fewer commute trips are made now than in the late 1980s. Shopping trips have declined 30% and, whilst some of this is due to the shift to on-line (now 17% of retail sales) the decline predates the on-line shopping era.

This must be wrong of course, the dip in traffic in the late 2000s was just the recession and we have seen growth in the last year right? You have to lift the bonnet a bit further to understand why rather than slowing or flattening, travel demand has not been further in decline. First, the decline in distances travelled per person has happened in every part of the country (see image below and analysis). Yes it is more marked in our cities where more people are living and where the options to not drive are better but these changes are everywhere. Second, they are most pronounced in under 30s but also in the 30 to 60 age band. The ONLY age range in which mileage per capita is growing is in the over 60s. This was anticipated, as the baby boomer generation reach retirement and retire with a lifetime of driving behind them, replacing a generation that was far less car dependent. What was not expected was the wave of reductions in the travel of younger people following on behind.


Whilst the traditional factors used to explain growth in travel such as income and fuel remain important, they are becoming less so. The activities we travel to access are themselves changing as are a range of other social trends which mean that the necessity and meaning of travel is also on the move. Work by Kiron Chatterjee and colleagues shows that for younger people a whole set of factors are changing which contribute to the reduction in travel such as living at home longer, more people staying in education for longer, delaying parenting (see their report). Scott le Vine and colleagues describe how work is changing with fewer people with one fixed place of work, more people working from home and fewer commuting five days a week (see image below and their report). The changes are not transport changes so we cannot hope to just find the explanations by looking in the same places we used to when the growth in car ownership was one of THE big social changes.


So, does any of this matter? It matters for a whole host of reasons – whether that is the need to meet carbon targets, improve air quality, the need to invest in the right sorts of projects or the need to address the chronic lack of exercise in the population. How we travel and how much we travel really does matter even though governments typically find it difficult to talk about. This is not a debate at the margins though. In 2015 the Department for Transport produced a set of road traffic forecasts in which the assessed what would happen if the recent trends for reducing how often we travel continue or stopped. The answer was, by 2040 a difference of 70 billion vehicle miles per year or, over the period up to 2040 a cumulative difference of over 1 trillion vehicle miles.


Let’s imagine that either of those futures is possible. What would need to be done to bring them about? What would our towns and cities look and feel like with such radically different levels of growth? How different would our investment priorities be? These would be the sorts of questions I would like to see being asked and which I will return to in my next blog. In the meantime, I hope this gives you a trillion reasons to think again about how much we travel and challenges at least one pre-conceived idea you held about travel trends.

Professor Greg Marsden is Chair of the Commission on Travel Demand and holds a chair in Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds.

All Change? The future of travel demand and the implications for policy and planning is available to download at where you will also find all of the evidence.

How can urban transportation improvements in India be accelerated?

In this blog we introduce a new two-year research project, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Indian Council of Social Science Research. The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Greg Marsden (ITS University of Leeds), Louise Reardon (INLOGOV, Birmingham), Sanjay Gupta (SPA, Delhi), Ashish Verma (IISc, Bangalore) and the World Resources Institute and will examine the urban mobility implications of India’s on-going Smart Cities Mission.

The negative outcomes of India’s current urban transport systems are a cause for concern. The World Health Organisation has identified India as home to 10 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, while also experiencing 150,000 road traffic deaths per year (some six times higher per head of population than the UK). There are also major social inequities that directly or indirectly arise from the uneven allocation of transport resources in India’s urban areas. To date, the emphasis in Indian cities has been on expanding mobility through new, large transport infrastructure projects. These projects benefit high income people most but do little to address the existing inequities in delivery of transport services where there has been a decline in the overall coverage of public transport and a rise in private motorised transport. Redesigning urban governance, including transport governance, has therefore been identified as a critical element of progress in delivering more inclusive and sustainable cities in India.


Congestion and Pollution in Delhi (source: NOMAD)

Previous research has identified that limited powers, resources and capacity at a local level have contributed to a failure to plan adequately for the exponential growth in vehicular traffic, and to service new formal and informal migrant communities in rapidly growing Indian cities. The need for improvements to transport service quality, innovation and easier access to the financing necessary for such improvements has increased the importance of industry and other private sector actors as key agents of change alongside the state. These processes bring with them new challenges around how best to manage the balance of responsibility and resources between national, regional and local government levels. Moreover, how best to govern through an increasingly complex set of actors and how to effectively steer the competing interests of different stakeholders.

in 2015 the Indian national government sought to address these governance challenges launching the Smart Cities Mission; a competition for funding for 100 cities in India for the period to 2019/20. In the government’s own words, the initiative is ‘bold’, aiming to go beyond what has been achieved before at the local level. The focus of the initiative is on promoting cities that provide core infrastructure, a good quality of life and a clean and sustainable environment, through the application of ‘Smart’ Solutions. Urban mobility is one aspect of the Smart Cities Mission (alongside water supply, electricity supply, sanitation, affordable housing, safety and security and health and education). In relation to transport specifically, Smart Cities aim to promote a variety of transport options including Transit Orientated Development, public transport, last mile para-transport connectivity and ‘walkable localities’. There is certainly a broad range of options from what might be seen as basic essentials to ‘smart’ and the tone set by the branding of the initiative is itself an interesting question.

Whilst the interpretation of what policy mix might achieve these features and at what scale (pan-city, new development, retrofit or redevelopment) is to be decided on by each City, the implementation of the Smart Cities Mission at the City level must be done by an organisational arrangement called a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) created for the purpose. The SPV will ‘plan, appraise, approve, release funds, implement, manage, operate, monitor and evaluate the Smart City development projects’. Within this context then, the Smart Cities Mission provides a major opportunity to understand the aims and processes of governance reform and contribute knowledge on the extent to which these reforms impact transport governance and in turn are capable of achieving a significant improvement in the mobility system to promote more sustainable and inclusive development.

The project will undertake a comparative analysis of four case study sites: Bangalore, Jaipur, Ranchi and Bhubaneshwar, each of which have their own history or previous urban transport governance reform. The project, will trace the impacts of transport governance reforms through to the impacts on the economic prosperity and quality of life of citizens both through changing processes and outcomes. It will also critically develop the multi-level governance framework approach in an Indian context, particularly understanding the evolving role of Special Purpose Vehicles in urban reforms. The project has a strong emphasis on engagement with practitioners and academics from across India and the UK and we would be pleased to hear from anyone who has an interest in these themes and in making a difference to urban transport reform in India.

Interested in what you have read here? We have a two-year post doctoral position available based at the University of Leeds to conduct the primary research (see here for details). There will also be shorter posts available in Delhi and Bangalore.

Greg Marsden & Louise Reardon

See here for further details on related ESRC-ICSSR projects and here for other ESRC projects relating to Urban Transformations.

Image Source: NOMAD [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons