The far-sighted National Development Strategy superbly integrated policies for land use and transport. Unfortunately, politicians ignored it and implemented half-baked projects in response to oligarchic lobbies and contemporary crises rather than future needs. This follows the sad precedent of dismantling Mauritius’ extensive railway network, which used to link not only Port Louis with the towns of Plaines Wilhems, but also Mahébourg, Souillac, Tamarin, Flic-en-Flac, Pamplemousses, Rivière du Rempart, Flacq and GRSE.
At that time, people preferred buses and sugar growers lorries as they were faster and more convenient but, as private car ownership has increased, our roads have become gridlocked during ever lengthening rush hours. A plethora of new roads is a reactive solution and the recent revival of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, re-routed through Bagatelle, seems intended to increase the value of a certain sugar estate’s holdings.
While travel time and convenience have been the dominant criteria for decision-making during the era of cheap oil, cost may soon prove to be the critical factor. Moreover, the total dependence of our transport system on imported fossil fuels would see it grind to a halt in the event of a supply disruption, caused, for example, by a US/Israeli war with Iran. Therefore, increasing both energy efficiency and self-sufficiency are vital for sustainable transport in Mauritius.
Many journeys can be eliminated entirely by fulfilling our dream of becoming a cyber-island. Replacing outdated civil service bureaucracy with internet-based systems and encouraging tele-working from home or nearby hot desking centres will greatly reduce the need for work-related travel. Journey lengths can be reduced by regionalising the provision of public services and by reducing the distance between homes and facilities (business, leisure, educational, health, etc) by judiciously increasing the density of our towns as part of a programme of urban renewal. Why not build regional campuses for our universities and make lecturers travel to students, rather than vice versa?
Every journey a vehicle makes can effectively be “re-used” by ensuring that it travels fully loaded. The concept of sharing vehicles is implicit in taxis and public transport and, with appropriate incentives, can be extended to private cars, e.g. by sharing costs and introducing dedicated traffic lanes and car parking. ICT can facilitate this by connecting people who are travelling to and from nearby destinations and black-listing those with socially unacceptable behaviour. With fewer private cars on the roads, buses will regain their advantage over rail, making the LRT redundant. Travel time can also be “re-used” by providing internet access within buses and at bus-stops. Electronic payment creates opportunities for pre-booking, route optimisation and cheaper through-ticketing; variable pricing could be used to encourage people to shift their travel to off-peak hours.
Walk and cycle
The traditional modes of people-powered transport are the most energy efficient and healthy, given that we consume far more calories than we need for our sedentary lifestyles. They must be given precedence over motorised vehicles, in recognition of their intrinsic efficiency and vulnerability. Why not create segregated cycle routes with canopies of solar photovoltaic panels? Likewise, covered, pedestrianised city centres can replicate the environment and ambiance of out-of-town shopping malls.
It is more efficient to use fuel to generate electricity in a centralised power station to power an electric car (e.g. Nissan Leaf) than to use it in a hybrid (e.g. Toyota Prius), which is effectively an electric car carrying its own power station. An electric car produces no net CO2 emissions if the electricity is generated from renewable sources like energy grasses. Smart grids can automatically control electric car chargers, thereby creating flexible demand to match generation from fluctuating sources, such as wind and solar, which few other means of land transport can harness. Discharging car batteries could even replace emergency generators at times of peak demand or during power cuts. Range limitations of 100-200 km per charge are not an issue for small islands like Mauritius.
The laws of physics dictate that the optimum vehicles for short journeys are light and move slowly, hence, electric bicycles and scooters are a good choice within towns and villages. As light-weight materials, such as carbon fibre, replace steel in forthcoming electric cars (e.g. BMW i3), they will need smaller batteries and motors for the same range and performance, reducing weight even further. Buses pose a problem given the distances they are required to cover during a day. Until batteries become lighter or fast charging is available at bus stops, buses will need to run on hydrocarbon fuels, however, these can also be produced from energy grasses.
For fast, long distance trips, aerodynamics are more important. Trains, with their high ratio of length to cross-sectional area are an ideal choice for high speed travel. However, long trains are not appropriate for the proposed LRT, whose carriages will also be required to start and stop frequently. A direct electricity supply means that batteries are not required, reducing weight, but large, intermittent loads will strain the network. Are there alternatives? Google is currently developing cars that drive themselves and communicate with each other. When perfected, this will allow them to travel much closer together, both reducing road congestion and permitting slip-streaming, thereby increasing aerodynamic efficiency.
Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) consists of small, computer-controlled carriages running on a widespread network of light weight, often elevated tracks. Such a system would be ideal for a city like Port Louis, allowing its streets to be fully pedestrianised. Towns could be connected more cheaply than by an LRT system, with the vehicles linking together to form high speed, aerodynamic convoys. Although this is a technology for tomorrow, given its potential to replace cars, buses and trains, it provides an ideal solution to our long term transport needs. The question is: are we investing with the future in mind or simply trying to solve the problems of the present?