When Hassam Ud-din started studying in Islamabad in Pakistan, he had a three-hour round-trip commute from his home in Rawalpindi. He hated sitting in traffic jams, breathing dirty air and burning up fuel and money. Eventually he moved closer to Islamabad but, not content with solving the problem for himself, he’s now come up with a fix to help others.
Ud-din has created an Internet tool that matches drivers with passengers looking for an affordable way to get to work or elsewhere. Called RASAI, the Urdu word for accessibility, the website and app aim to fill spare seats and empty trunks and create a more efficient travel system that offers low-income travellers more opportunities while also tackling pollution.
“I realized that people are limited in the opportunities they have by the radius of where they can go easily and cost-effectively,” said Ud-din, who has a passion for maps and route planning and studied transportation engineering.
In Pakistan, it is quite common to see people seeking lifts on the side of the main roads. After conducting a survey that found that more than 60 per cent of vehicles were using only half their capacity, Ud-din realized it would be possible to harness this tradition.
“It was already happening in an informal way so what we did was we gave people an option to digitize their daily route. People can go to our website or app and register their route with us and the timings and we can find them passengers to take on their way,” the 26-year-old said, noting that most people tend to use the website to set up monthly rides.
Only 17 per cent of Pakistan’s population of around 200 million own cars but the country’s cities are still blighted by congestion and foul-smelling fumes. The Health Effects Institute’s State of Global Air report last year found that Pakistan, Bangladesh and India had experienced the steepest increases in air pollution levels since 2010.
Authorities are starting to act: for example, in 2020 Karachi will launch a zero-emission Green Bus Rapid Transit network, with 200 buses fuelled by bio-methane, or cow poo. However, the need for affordable transport is still great.
For Ud-din, the answer lies in the vehicles that are already on the roads.
“Our main aim was to create a virtual transit network … where you don’t have an infrastructure but the capacity on the roads is optimized for you and you are able to use it quite efficiently,” he says.
Around 1,400 vehicles are registered on RASAI’s website, with most customers setting up lifts on a month-by-month basis. Passengers who find a lift using RASAI usually pay a nominal amount to help cover fuel costs, but the trips are still more affordable than other methods.
Ud-din had to overcome people’s resistance to sharing their cars. Some were concerned about possible security issues or cultural differences. But Ud-din found a way to circumvent that hesitation by linking his service to the existing concept of pick-drop taxis.
“We need to be disruptive in the tech and the value proposition but it’s good to be conservative when you pitch it to the customer and try to relate it to something that is already there,” he said.
While one of Ud-din’s main priorities was to provide affordable transport for people on lower incomes, he also wanted to address traffic pollution.
“(RASAI) helps solve the pollution problem directly and indirectly: if four people go in one car instead of taking their own cars, that reduces emissions. Indirectly, if those cars are not on the road, that reduces both congestion and pollution.”
Ud-din’s innovation won a grant from UN Environment as part of the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge, which supports young people with cutting-edge ideas to foster energy-efficient, low-waste and low-carbon lifestyles.
Ud-din says the grant boosted his team’s morale, while the mentoring he received as part of the award allowed him to think more clearly about turning his idea into a viable business model.
“The financial support was crucial to hone the product and cover the expenses required. These kinds of startups require a lot of capital to start because they require a critical mass,” he said.
Commenting on the winners of the challenge, UN Environment’s Acting Executive
Director Joyce Msuya said the innovations were just the latest examples of a long history of ingenuity in the region.
“The four billion inhabitants of Asia and the Pacific have seen both sides of the development ledger more vividly than most. Standards of living have skyrocketed as traditional consumption and production models have gone into overdrive,” she wrote in a recent opinion piece.
“Yet, environmental debt accrued by these global habits is increasingly obvious: climate change, pollution, habitat loss and ecosystem destruction. If we continue to make the same choices, our future looks bleak.”
The innovative spirit shown by inventors like Ud-din will take centre-stage at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March, where the motto will be to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
For Ud-din, who spent a year in Silicon Valley as part of the Global Cleantech Innovation programme, technology will play a critical role in finding new solutions to environmental challenges, just as it has enabled on-demand services to facilitate our increasingly digital lives.
“Tech allows us to leverage resources that we might not even have known we have. Take Airbnb: people had spare rooms and the tech allowed them to make them available on a platform, and now it’s a valuable company,” Ud-din said. “In the same way, we are saying that if you are driving somewhere and you have spare capacity, that’s an asset you can leverage.”