Q&A with Sudhir Gota, recipient of the 2013 Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship

EMBARQ, the sustainable transport and urban planning program of the World Resources Institute, and the Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship Board announced today the 2013 recipients of the Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship was established in 2012 to support the momentum of EMBARQ founder Lee Schipper’s contributions to international policy dialogue in the fields of sustainable transport and energy efficiency. This year’s recipients are Sudhir Gota of Clean Air Asia and Fei Li, currently a Ph.D. candidate at New York University.

Gota’s proposal is titled, Crunching Numbers for Low Carbon Transport in Asia, and will look at the current ASIF framework (or “activity,” “mode share,” “intensity,” and “fuel mix”) in Asia, which was initially developed by Schipper to create a transparent system of calculating emissions.

We spoke to Sudhir Gota to learn a little more about why he is interested in sustainable transport.

Sudhir Gota talks about his car-free childhood, why he came to hate the freeways he was engineering, and why he loves number crunching.

Please, tell me a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? Did your family drive a car or ride public transport?

I am an introvert and I love doing research instead of socializing.

My father was an officer in the Indian Army so I grew up all over India, wherever he was posted at the time. Our family was a typical Indian middle class family. My dad owned a car only after his retirement, when he could afford it, so we had an automobile-free lifestyle. I biked until I started working as an engineer.

How did you become interested in “crunching numbers” as you, in tribute to Lee Schipper, refer to your work?

My passion for crunching numbers started while working with Lee. We were looking at the emission quantification issue for several Asian countries along with the Asian Development Bank for the first time. Lee’s passion of looking at numbers and deriving insights was infectious. Our research together was one of the initial efforts on emission quantification in Asia. Since not many people were working on this critical issue, I continued my work on data crunching.

You’ve said that you started your planning career planning high speed roads. What was the moment you decided to shift from designing highways to more sustainable solutions?

When I did my Masters in Transportation engineering the focus was very much on increasing the number of roads, as India at that point had initiated massive work on road expansion. After my education, I started working on highway design and worked on many projects for five years.

I saw that roads were widened in cases where it was not necessary, roads that were expanded got congested within a couple of years, and many of the decisions being made on the ground were not correct. I was getting frustrated.

What are some of the challenges of introducing walkability and green freight into the agenda across Asia?

For one, both are very neglected topics. Nobody wants to talk about these issues. Freight is still a neglected topic and not many people are working on this issue in developing countries in Asia.

I think walking finally has some champions.

In 2008 I researched the type of transport issues covered in a national newspaper for one month. Not even 5% of the articles were related to walking. In order to change the public mindset in relation to walking, we took the walkability index developed by an intern at the World Bank and used the survey to capture media attention. Over last couple of years, I have helped to get walkability highlighted in more than 50 newspaper articles reaching more than 5 million people. But it is still peanuts. People are interested in big ticket projects. For example, when we talk about BRT systems or Metro, not many talk about accessibility to the BRT or Metro network. I am very sorry to say that if walking was an expensive solution, I think it would have more support.

How do you challenge conventional practice? Tell me about an unexpected or innovative solution you’ve been a part of.

We found that trucks were major emitters of CO2 emissions in Asia. During our research we decided that trucks were responsible for 40-60% of Asia’s C02 emissions.

Many experts told us that it could not be that much, that we had made some mistake.

Our research was contrary to people’s perception that cars are the biggest emitters. But in Asia where car ownership is low, the biggest consumption of fuel is by trucks. Lee backed us at that point in time and his support helped us to establish our argument. Our research allowed us to move inside freight with our work in China. Now China has a dedicated program on freight and many other countries are looking at replicating this.

As I understand it, your research focuses on solving problems relating to the lack of data and inconsistency of predictions regarding carbon emissions. What will happen, in terms of public policy, if this data problem isn’t solved?

This research focuses on the foundation of sustainable transport: data and analysis, which influences decision making on whether to implement sustainable or non-sustainable projects and policies. Over the next decade, more than $2 trillion USD of transport investment is required in Asia alone. The insights from my proposed research would benefit this decision making process by critiquing current ASIF practices and recommending solutions. I would not hesitate to say that ASIF framework is currently being abused by people. Our research will make the quantification process more transparent, and therefore, more accurate

Sudhir Gota is a 2013 recipient of the Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship, announced on July 8, 2013. Read the full announcement here.

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