Representational Photo: Getty Images
Representational Photo: Getty Images

Three-wheel powered solution to dirty air

Quintessential three-wheeler autorickshaws slated for unrestricted free run in Delhi-NCR can be a disruptive clean mobility solution across India

The recommendation of the Environment Pollution Control (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) to the Supreme Court to consider removing the current cap on registration of three-wheeler autorickshaws to cut air pollution in Delhi has fanned intense curiosity.

Why are these vehicles, that were initially restricted for fouling up the air, coming back without fetters on their numbers to reduce pollution? While this might sound like an oxymoron to some, this is actually a unique case in which the technology clean up has converged with mobility solution to set the next generation roadmap for intermediate public transport in Delhi and other Indian cities.

Circumstances have changed considerably since 1997 when these vehicles were powered by extremely polluting two-stroke engines or small diesel engines that made a cap on their numbers necessary. The autos were also moved to run on CNG.

But now, as EPCA has pointed out, these vehicles are expected to be much cleaner with Bharat Stage VI (BS-VI) emission standards coming next year. That will make CNG/petrol/LPG three-wheelers significantly much cleaner.

Even battery-operated vehicles are a reality today. Registration of BS-VI CNG-fuelled three-wheelers can start immediately. However, EPCA has also stated that Haryana, UP and Rajasthan must phase out their current fleet of diesel three-wheelers as these vehicles with single cylinder small diesel engines emit several times more than even diesel cars.

These cannot easily and affordably adapt to advanced emissions control systems and will continue to emit more than diesel cars even after meeting BS-VI standards. EPCA has also made it conditional for autorickshaws to meet service level benchmark.

Why three-wheeler transport services?

It is often not well understood in policy circles why small vehicle-based intermediate public transport system is part of mobility solution in India. These systems are spontaneous market responses to provide reliable, efficient and affordable short-range public transport services to different income groups in Indian cities. These are low volume but high frequency services and very efficient feeders that can integrate bigger public transport systems and last mile connectivity to the doorsteps.

This segment is already catering to a sizeable population in our cities. In mega Indian cities they are estimated to meet about 4-5 per cent of travel demand; in metropolitan cities around 16-17 per cent and in smaller cities as high as 40-70 per cent of public transport services.

If these systems are destroyed there can be enormous public transport service deficit in our cities that can lead to higher dependence on personal vehicles. These services make eminent sense in densely and closely built compact cities of India. In most cities, more than half of average trip length is within 3-4 km; high percentage of work trips is accessible within 15 minutes. Even big buses may not be convenient for these short distances.

Yet these systems often fall victim to policy disdain and neglect. While their services have remained self-organised and adhoc, their technology level has also languished for a long time.

Although two-wheelers have made much early en-mass transition to four stroke engines, three-wheeled vehicles have remained locked in two-stroke engines and diesel engines for a long time. This is also because of price sensitivity and affordability of this market.

The pollution source assessments carried out in Indian cities have shown that they could contribute substantially to local air pollution — as much as 21 per cent of vehicular pollution in Bengaluru; 26 per cent in Chennai; and 15 per cent in Pune. It has been therefore logical to curtail their services, and restrict their movement and numbers.

Strangely, these services often come into conflict with new bus and rail-based systems in cities. They are blamed for competing and taking away passengers from larger systems. Local regulations push them out of those routes without paying any attention to the system integration, route rationalization and integration of these systems as feeder services to improve last mile connectivity.

But their environmental and air quality benefits are expected to be substantial. Studies such as those carried out by iTrans and Centre for Policy Research have found that in cities such as Kolkata, 71 per cent reduction in carbon monoxide(CO) emission, and 31 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are possible if two-wheeler trips are replaced by autorickshaw trips.

As much as 82 per cent reduction in CO emission, and 83 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions are possible if car trips are replaced by autorickshaw trips. A huge reduction in traffic volume is possible in terms of passenger car unit (PCU) — as these can save and prevent 75,445 PCUs in terms of two wheelers and 1,33,022 PCUs in terms of four wheelers.

It is also clear that along with technology improvement, it is important to improve their service quality and makeover their image. In fact, Delhi is reorganising this sector.

They are regulated through route fixing and penalty but there is a need for larger framework of deployment strategy. Three-wheeler drivers are to get public service vehicle badge and smart cards. GPS connectivity is available to improve the meters and compliance. But a lot more will have to be done.

Towards zero emissions

The future regulation for this vehicle segment can become a game changer if it enables zero emission mandate and pathways. The e-rickshaw revolution in India for instance, has already demonstrated the potential of these systems to become zero emission modes for the masses. It is the poor person’s vehicle that is steering the electric mobility revolution in India.

According to available estimates, the number of e-rickshaws has grown approximately 1,400 times since 2010. When compared to 2015, the number of registered e-rickshaws has grown 16 times in 2017.

While E-rickshaws have their niche application, the policy can open up market for new generation electric three-wheelers that have comparatively higher speed, higher safety standards and wider regulatory net. They also have easier access to formal finance, including state driven subsidies and livelihood schemes prevalent in many states across India.

We will certainly see more market disruption in this segment and more innovative business models around their deployment. This is already evident in the shared mobility platform of the fleet aggregators like Uber and Ola, which are making forays into organising autorickshaws, including electric autorickshaws as part of their shared mobility strategy.

As these can have more defined routes and fixed hours of operation they are more predictable and easier to electrify.

This ubiquitous vehicle can certainly make a difference if it finds its legitimate space in mobility solution and is deployed with right intent, clean technology pathways and zero emissions mandate.

Down To Earth