BANGALORE, INDIA — It’s almost as if Russian cell phone carrier MTS has bought the naming rights to Bangalore. I half expected my immigration stamp to read “BANGALORE! ™ BROUGHT TO YOU BY MTS.” The carrier recently launched service in the uber-competitive Indian telecom market and has erected billboards every twenty feet or so. I have never seen so much advertising by one company in one space. They all sport an agro looking dude with his face twisted in some rebel-yell while he does inscrutable things with robots and mechanical arms holding different tech gadgets.
Why have these ads made such an impression on me? Because I’ve spent a week sitting in stopped Bangalore traffic looking at them. Ironically one keeps boasting: CONGESTION-FREE MOBILE NETWORK. Sitting still and listening to the honking of cars, mopeds, bikes and rickshaws all around me, it’s an easy guess that, if true, MTS could be the only thing congestion-free in India.
I used to think I knew bad traffic. After all, I moved to Silicon Valley during the famed Internet bubble when Highway 101 slowed to a crawl during peak commute hours. And I’ve spent time in legendarily congested US cities like Los Angeles and New York.
Now that India has one of the world’s best mobile infrastructures, it needs a decent road infrastructure. And a smart entrepreneur needs to come up with a modern fix. But before we talk solutions, let’s dwell more on the problem.
Simply put: All of you Americans—or Londoners for that matter—who Tweet about sitting in traffic have nothing to complain about compared to the emerging world. And in my experience, so far, India’s traffic is the absolute worst. A drive between cities that should take an hour takes four. A commute across a city can routinely take two hours-plus. We’re not talking about rush hour. I’ve quickly learned to allot at least three hours for each meeting—one hour for the meeting and one each for getting there and back.
Even so, despite my best efforts, I’ve been late for nearly every meeting. In Mumbai one meeting scheduled for late morning took six hours out of my day. (Fortunately, the meeting was well worth it.) And in Bangalore my cab driver tried to take a back-alley short cut, when suddenly, our path was blocked by a cow just munching on some roadside grass. He honked and honked and she just looked up and batted her pretty brown eyes at me as if to say, “Oh, you’re not making that meeting on time, hon.”
Indians complain about the poor foresight and urban planning of their government, but it’s not all the government’s fault. The Chinese government is the master of over-building capacity to anticipate growth, and city traffic in China is becoming unbearable as well. It’ll only get worse as an anticipated 30% more cars per year come on the road.
The problem is the hyper-charged urbanization these countries have experienced. In the West cities grew over centuries allowing city planners to adjust and modernize as industrialization drove higher occupancy. And in the past few decades there’s been a flight out of downtowns to suburbs. Of course that presents its own growing pains—especially in US cities that have experienced massive suburban sprawl like Phoenix and Atlanta. But in the grand scheme of things, the moves have been predictable and manageable, whether individual cities have handled it well or not.
Not so with the rapid urbanization of cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. The step up in pay from hundreds to thousands of US dollars a year has been swift and far reaching. In China, agricultural classes have moved en masse to staff huge several-thousand-person factories, and for the Olympics, they moved en masse into hospitality jobs in Beijing’s raft of new hotels, malls and restaurants. This is to say nothing of the increase in government jobs and startups. There is simply no way to make remotely the same wage or have the same access to infrastructure and services outside a city. In some parts of India it’s been more pronounced as hundreds of thousands of sophisticated R&D jobs typically pay more than China’s factory jobs.
Here’s my point: All the existing Western solutions, endless government funds, underground subways and top urban planners will not solve this problem. Because simply put: The world has never seen urbanization so extreme by millions—maybe even billions— of people seeking a better life. We need some innovation here. And I know at least one guy who is thinking about it.
At a conference earlier this year, Elon Musk – the guy who co-founded PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and laughs like a James Bond villain — talked about two new businesses he was mulling. One was electric, supersonic planes, which I’ve salivated over since. The other was pre-fabricated freeway overpasses to alleviate traffic by making it go vertical without the costly billion-dollar customized expansion fees.
I have to admit, at the time, I was more excited about the planes. But his freeway idea may be a better business. It would dramatically affect the lives of billions (literally) and create at least millions of revenues in the developing world where quick, cheap options are needed and there is hot-and-heavy government money to pay for it.
Now, clearly Mr. Musk is busy with existing ventures Tesla and SpaceX. So now’s your chance to steal the market out from under him! India and China are waiting.