Interview with Geetam Tiwari: Mobility and Climate Solutions in Indian Cities

By Christina Olsen

For the past 15 years, Christina Olsen has provided research, advisory services, project management, planning, and general management to a wide range of sustainability organizations and projects around the world. She holds a master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management from Harvard and a BA in Environmental Studies – with a joint major in Anthropology – from the University of Victoria.

This interview series is made possible by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations. Each month we feature a leading thinker from VREF’s Future Urban Transport program.

Meeting of the Minds talked with Geetam Tiwari about her work developing systems and designs that make transportation safer and more efficient, with a special focus on vulnerable road users and commuters. Geetam is TRIPP Chair Associate Professor for Transport Planning at the Indian Institute of Technology (ITT) in Delhi and Alderbrastka Guest Professor for Sustainable Urban Transport at the Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden 2007-2009.

Can you tell me a little bit about the work you are doing?

We were one of the first recipients of VREF’s Centre of Excellence grant and have had their renewed support since 2002. The broad framework for our Transport Planning group here at the Indian Institute of Technology (ITT) is to work on research that reduces adverse health effects of transport with a special reference to low-income countries. The original focus of work was on transportation planning and traffic safety, as well as vehicle safety.

We have had many projects and PhD students supported over the years. Colleagues from mechanical engineering and applied mechanics work on crash modeling. Guidelines and policy documents have been produced for both the state and central governments in India. Many useful concepts have come out of our Transport Planning Group at ITT, such as high capacity bus systems like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) that were first introduced to cities in India. In fact, the Delhi government came up with new bus systems and specifications for urban buses through VREF support. Although a lot of our research is funded by city and state government, implementation of our work depends on who is in government, who is in power, and how effective they are.

The Industry-Academic Partnership is a project we are working on closely with a company in Delhi that looks after bus systems. The idea is that they share data with us, we do a lot of research to come up with ideas of how to improve bus performance, and they use them to improve the performance of the bus system.

More recent funding supports work in two other areas. One is pedestrian safety, which includes planning better roads for pedestrians, planning safer vehicles for pedestrians, and getting into what legislative changes are required to create a pedestrian safe environment. The other topic is a new one that has emerged: urban freight.

What is the connection between urban freight and safety or health?

More and more we realized that very little is known about urban freight. The only related policies are very restrictive – we don’t allow freight vehicles to enter the city at certain hours and don’t allow them to use certain roads. When we started looking at larger health issues, including global warming and climate change, we knew we couldn’t exclude such an important aspect of transport.

Urban freight has implications for greenhouse gas emissions based on how clean it is; what kind of fuel is being used and whether is it motorized or non motorized. The other aspect is that almost 60% of pedestrians involved in fatal crashes in cities are actually hit by freight vehicles. So we are starting to explore this in more detail by looking at Indian city data. It is quite alarming that involvement of freight vehicles in hitting pedestrians is so high, even though we don’t allow freight vehicles in the city during day hours. So the involvement of freight in looking at environmental solutions (both local and global) and also the health aspects of traffic crashes has to be understood better.

Have you come across any interventions to mitigate the negative effects of urban freight?

There are straightforward policies for the environmental aspects: clean up the fuel for freight vehicles. A more interesting aspect is finding counter-intuitive information. For example, generally, the main freight centers have been created outside the city. The main logic is that bigger vehicles don’t enter the city so as not to congest city roads, with the final freight distribution happening some other way. However, now some research is showing that this might not be a good strategy. Instead of one big vehicle coming into the city, there are several smaller vehicles used for final delivery, and that part is not being optimized. Our basic transport system has traditionally been optimized for passenger traffic but it’s very clear that you need freight wherever people live We have not accounted for that in our planning and modeling and it cannot be ignored any longer.

One of my colleagues has an operations research background and is working closely with researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Center for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems in the US. They are studying how final freight delivery is taking place and if there is any way of optimizing it. One of my PhD students is working with the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden to look into what kind of policies can reduce the main externalities created by freight, which include: safety, climate change issues, and local pollution and congestion. We will eventually look into what strategies would work to reduce these. 

Have any of your research findings surprised you?

We were recently studying detailed traffic crash data from six cities for the last five years. The presence of two-wheelers, such as motorcycles and other motorized two-wheeled transport with small engines, is very high in most Asian countries. We were surprised to find that at least 15-20% of the fatal crashes in cities are caused by two-wheelers hitting pedestrians.

One of the best measures of controlling crashes is speed control by design. However, traffic-calming devices are designed more for cars and right now there are not many designs available that can effectively control speeds of motorized two-wheelers. When you create exclusive lanes for pedestrians and bicycles, it is very easy for two-wheelers to also use those lanes. So this is going to throw up a lot of new challenges for us in terms of making urban environments safe for pedestrians in the presence of many motorized two-wheelers.

What about active transportation, like walking or biking?

You can’t promote public transport without promoting pedestrians. We have done important guidelines for government that also discuss modal shares. The Code of Practice for Urban Roads explains how to make roads safer for pedestrians, bicycles, and public transport users. Another is a very detailed audit checklist city governments can use to make public transport accessible by all by following universal design guidelines. We also created the excel-based Bus Evaluation and Design Tool, as well as different versions of a bicycle master plan for Delhi.

We see active transport as a part of this whole story. You cannot promote active transport if you cannot ensure safety. We have to create safe environments – only then will people walk and bicycle by choice.

What innovations or major changes to do you see coming in the next five years?

A lot of people are already working on hybrid buses, cleaner buses, and electric buses with very different technology. This is where we are looking for major breakthroughs that make a clean and less expensive bus. However, we also need innovation in institutions that can deliver clean and safe mobility to large numbers of people in our cities. Whether it’s a partnership between government and private sector, or civil society organization and citizens, we need to come up with some new breakthroughs in how we organize our systems. Better integration to benefit the commuter.

Another important issue is urbanization now taking place in Asia, and next in Africa. The rest of the world is already 80-90% urbanized but in these two continents, urbanization does have a different shade because population densities are very high and all cities have “informal settlements”. These are usually viewed as something undesirable and not a legal part of master planning or urban planning. Because of that, large numbers of people end up living in very poor conditions. So we will have to understand how to deal with informal settlements, how to integrate them into the formal processes to improve the living conditions of their residents.

In fact, the formal sector has not been very good at providing jobs, livelihoods, and decent living conditions to these people. This is the set of people for whom even subsidized public transport is not affordable. Access to employment, health, and education – not just housing – is extremely important. Can we ensure access by offering public transport, or can we do it by locating facilities so they can be reached by active transport which doesn’t require any money? Do we have policies and methods to ensure efficient and safe mobility for this set of people? Dealing with the link is between livelihoods, urban planning, and mobility in urban informal settlements is a major research and policy challenge.

Something that strikes me is that the 21st century is different from the last century when motorization began. Climate change and global warming issues were not understood then so the whole aspect of transport now has to be understood differently. We hope there is a paradigm shift in understanding how to provide efficient and democratic mobility to the majority of the population. It cannot be dependent on the individual car. The powerful industry behind traditional mobility will pose a lot of challenges in doing something very different. If something drastic is not done by 2050, many studies show that global temperature is going to rise by up to four degrees. This will pose a major challenge. If we are living in that kind of world, then how should we organize our cities and mobility differently to adapt to this new reality?


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  1. ” It cannot be dependent on the individual car.” An unsupported statement. If pollution is your issue then build cars that do not pollute. If energy is the issue then build car networks that use only sunshine radiation for power. The four passenger ________ is not the core issue. It is incidental to the real problems to solve. You construe it into a boogie man but the medium sized vehicle has always been and will always be. Pollution and wasted energy are independent of the family and/or personal mobility device format. Big box transit pollutes more and because of never being 100% full all the time it wastes energy in the real world operation. Guideway EVs running on PV Solar are one solution that preserves the “car” while accomplishing the other achievements you mention.

  2. Timely article as the World Humanitarian Summit concluded today in Istanbul. As San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is showing leadership that ‘How we move ourselves and goods around is rapidly changing”. Involving citizens to embrace and shape these changes is very important to ‘developing safer, more equitable and innovative solutions to transportation challenges’.

  3. Great reading! Geetam is a rare type, with experience, insight and technical capability The TRIP Centre at IIT Delhi is an oasis in India .


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