What Happens When a City Is Run by Private Industry?

India’s first driverless “taxi pods” are set debut in Gurgaon, a booming city that boasts gleaming skyscrapers but lacks urban infrastructure.

Image AP Photo/ Manish Swarup
An auto rickshaw drives past a high-rise residential building complex in Gurgaon. (AP Photo/ Manish Swarup)

India is known for its hellish commutes, with traffic jams regularly reaching miles and lasting hours. And despite technological promises to make riding the railways and subways more convenient, the country’s mass transit system still needs work. So it was exciting news when local media reported last week that India is finally ready to debut its first “taxi pods,” or personal rapid transit (PRT), in the industrial city of Gurgaon.

According to The Times of India, the National Highways Authority has already laid the groundwork for an eight-mile network of driverless taxi pods, and is seeking global bids from private companies to finance and complete the project. It’s expected to be completed within a year at a cost of $128 million*, with 1,100 pod cars ferrying passengers at a speed of nearly 40 miles per hour. Each will be suspended 33 feet above the ground from an overhead network of supports, and will carry roughly five passengers directly to their destinations.

PRT, which combines the on-demand convenience of taxis with the luxury of personal cars, often gets touted as the future of mass transit. It hasn’t quite caught on globally—only a few places, including West Virginia University and Heathrow Airport in London have such systems—and as CityLab previously reported, it may never will.

But Gurgaon hopes the futuristic mode of transit, if it comes to fruition, will be the answer to its notorious traffic—a major problem that stems in large part from the fact that the city is run almost entirely by private companies.

In less than 30 years, Gurgaon went from barren farmland on the outskirts of the Indian capital of New Delhi to a global technology hub with more than 2 million people. With only one governmental agency managing the city in the 1990s and a very streamlined licensing process, Gurgaon became a playground for developers. Skyscrapers, luxury apartments, shopping malls, and hotels began popping up all over the city.

The city was efficient, its economy kept growing, and things got done. It attracted middle-class families, tech workers, entrepreneurs, and companies including General Electric, American Express, and Google. In fact, half of the Fortune 500 companies currently have offices there, according to a 2014 report by the economists Alex Tabarrok and Shruti Rajagopalan. At the end of India’s 2015 fiscal year, Gurgaon attracted 70 percent of investments flowing into the state of Haryana. It’s come to be known by some as “the Singapore of India.”

But the city “grew not by plan but in a fit of absence of mind,” wrote Tabarrok and Rajagopalan in a recent op-ed for The New York Times. Gurgaon may be a bustling metropolis, but it lacks infrastructure, which means there’s no citywide system for water, electricity, or sewage. Private companies handle those, the economists write: Trucks that haul away waste dump it on public land, tap water is often delivered by private trucks, and reliable electricity often comes from diesel generators that pollute the environment. However, no private company can—or would want to—create a monopoly on urban infrastructure there because of the sheer cost of digging up roads, stringing cables, and negotiating land use, they wrote in their report.

A Delhi Metro train moves over tracks meant for the rapid metro in Gurgaon. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

The roads themselves are in good shape, as they serve private developments, but the city’s transportation system and road networks can only be described as “abysmal,” according to Tabarrok and Rajagopalan’s report:

In private developments, each household has at least one car (often one car per member of the household) and the city adds sixty thousand cars to its roads every month. Poor commuters rely on auto-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and overflowing private buses. Congestion is an enormous problem.

Gurgaon did open a metro system—also privately financed—in 2013, connecting the city to New Delhi, but it’s often overcrowded and fails to reach all of Gurgaon. Both residents and experts have become more vocal about getting a city bus service up and running. “A good bus service will automatically solve the auto menace in Gurgaon as they are presently filling a vacuum created by deficient public transport,” SK Lohia, a former member of the Ministry of Urban Development, told the Hindustan Times.

Tabarrok and Rajagopalan note that Gurgaon is an extreme case of a privatized city. But some elements work. It might just be possible to strike a balance between top-down government planning and bottom-up planning by private companies.

*CORRECTION: The expected cost of the taxi pod project is $128 million, not $128 billion.

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