Enhancing Urban Mobility through Low-Carbon Water Transport

With its fleet of 78 electric hybrid boats, the Kochi Water Metro is expected to revolutionize commuting in the city, providing island residents with a fast, integrated, and environmentally friendly alternative to road-based transport. Photo credit: Cities Development Initiative for Asia.

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The Kochi Water Metro is an example of how inland waterway transport can not only improve commuting but also contribute to climate goals.


In Asia and the Pacific, inland waterway transport is a traditional mode of transportation in many cities that have a network of lakes, canals, and rivers. It includes ferries, pontoon boats, and water taxis (or water buses).

However, commuters started to shift to land-based transport with more and better roads built and bridges connecting islands. The limited capacity of the road network to accommodate growing demand and increasing private vehicle ownership have led to traffic congestion. In the meantime, water transport in many cities suffer from a lack of investment and has fallen into a state of disrepair, making it less appealing for people to use.

The Kochi Water Metro project in the State of Kerala, India is an example of how inland waterway transport can be revitalized to provide a sustainable alternative to road-based modes. Envisioned as a state-of-the-art, fully integrated, and environmentally friendly system, it is expected to be a game-changer in improving the mobility of people living in Kochi City’s extensive island communities while contributing to tourism growth, environmental protection, and the government’s climate goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2070.

Making the Case for a Sustainable Water Transport Solution

Kochi is the second most important port city on the western coast of India. According to the Kochi Municipal Corporation, which manages the city, it has a population of 602,046 as per the 2011 census. It is spread over a cluster of island communities along its western coast and has an interconnected system of lakes, canals, and lagoons that is part of the scenic Kerala backwaters. This unique configuration highlights the pivotal role of water transport in the mobility of island residents.

Kochi has a long history of water transport. At the beginning of the 20th century, 90% of residents in the State of Kerala were using small boats to reach the mainland where they could sell their farm products or get their daily needs. Over time, more roads and bridges were built. Now, less than 3% of residents are using water transport.

This modal shift has contributed to traffic congestion and pollution. Urban sprawl, the limited capacity of the road network, and increased private vehicle ownership, which is almost doubling per year, exacerbated the situation.

The preference for road-based transport modes also stemmed from the poor condition of ferries, public jetties, and terminals, which lacked modern passenger facilities. The limited transport connectivity was also a major problem. Passengers would rather stand on a bus for more than an hour than get stranded in a ferry terminal waiting for a bus to arrive on time.

These challenges called for the revitalization of Kochi’s ferry services, as part of the city’s overall strategy to improve the mobility of residents while reducing carbon emissions, protecting the environment, and providing more tourism opportunities.

The Development of the Kochi Water Metro

In 2010, the Cities Development Initiative for Asia (CDIA), a multi-donor trust fund managed by the Asian Development Bank, supported Kochi City in developing an innovative transport sector strategy, out of which it prepared the pre-feasibility study for what later became the Kochi Water Metro project.

In 2016, the German development bank, KfW, and the Government of India signed a partnership agreement for an €85 million ($92 million) investment to deliver an environmentally friendly and sustainable ferry service in Kochi. While the government retained some key design specifications indicated in the CDIA pre-feasibility study, it elevated the project to a higher level of sophistication.

When the CDIA team conducted a monitoring visit in Kochi in October 2022, they found that significant benefits can be derived from the implementation of the project. These include reduced travel time; decongestion of roads; reduced carbon emission and environmental pollution; better mobility for all, including persons with disabilities (PWDs); and enhanced employment and livelihood opportunities arising from better connectivity and increased tourism potential along the ferry routes.

In April 2023, the Kochi Water Metro started its commercial operations. In 3 months, more than 650,000 passengers have availed of the service via its two maiden routes: High Court to Vypin Island and Vytilla to Kakkanad.

Once fully operational in 2035, the Kochi Water Metro will connect 10 island communities with Kochi’s mainland through 78 battery-operated electric hybrid boats, 15 strategic routes, and 38 modern terminals. It is expected to serve about 100,000 passengers daily, thereby providing them with fast, reliable, and environmentally friendly water transport.

Key Considerations

The following key factors were considered in the planning and design of the Kochi Water Metro project to ensure its success:

Take advantage of the latest technologies. Project developers capitalized on emerging technologies and adapted them to the city’s specific requirements. For example, the boats will be run primarily on electric propulsion, using Lithium Titanate Oxide, considered to be the most safe and long-lasting battery available commercially in the world. The battery can be recharged in 15 minutes.

Create an integrated water transport system that is economically viable. Kochi Water Metro adopted an integrated transport concept. Its terminals are strategically located within the vicinity of other modes like buses, the metro rail, auto-rickshaws, and other feeder systems. This will provide seamless interconnectivity and increase ridership for the water metro.

Design it to meet the transport needs of all, including vulnerable groups. Kochi Water Metro was designed to cater to all kinds of passengers and to ensure the safety and convenience of everyone. They have installed advanced security and surveillance, communication, and emergency response systems; automatic passenger control that prevents overcrowding; and floating pontoons in all jetties to ensure safe passage amid tidal variations.

Protect the environment and contribute to climate change mitigation. Even from the beginning, Kochi’s objective was to combine its transport project with environmental initiatives. For example, the boats are made from lightweight and recyclable materials, and they have a low draft and wake design, which consumes less power and emits less noise.

In addition, the use of electric propulsion for boats has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by at least 16,500 tonnes per year upon the project’s full implementation.

Align the project with existing urban transport plans. The modernization of ferry services is part of Kochi’s transport sector strategy, which CDIA helped prepare in 2010. This helped the project gain political support and stakeholder buy-in from development to implementation. The national government even contributed €20 million ($21.7 million) in equity to the project.

Adopt appropriate project implementation mechanisms. In line with the special purpose vehicle arrangement proposed in the pre-feasibility study, Kochi Metro Rail Limited was tapped for the operation and maintenance of the water ferry system. This enabled the Kochi Water Metro project to tap into the project management experience of the company in implementing the Kochi Metro Rail.

The Importance of Project Preparation

Despite the benefits of inland waterway transport, many cities have yet to harness its full potential. The Kochi Water Metro project offers a prototype of how other cities may revitalize their age-old water transport system and elevate it to include the necessary ingredients of sustainable urban transport.

A specific aspect worth mentioning from the Kochi Water Metro project is how the initiative has been embedded into the city’s development plan and pursued not as a stand-alone measure, but as part of a broader, holistic suite of interventions to address traffic congestion and improve the mobility of people in Kochi City.

Cities planning to revitalize their water transport can turn to project preparation facilities, such as CDIA, to help establish the bankability of their project and make them attractive to potential funders. In particular, they can support cities in going through the rigorous process of project preparation, which can include, among others, a thorough investigation of urban development issues to establish a strong case for the project; examining the various technical solutions; balancing the technical components with social, environmental, and economic considerations; developing the plans and options for financing; developing a capacity and institutional strengthening roadmap; and devising the most workable implementation mechanisms.

A project preparation facility can also help engage all stakeholders to get their insights on the issues and incorporate their recommended solutions into the project. Doing so will help ensure project buy-in and the appropriateness of interventions.

Instead of allowing water transport to continue to decay, cities can harness its potential to improve mobility and at the same time serve as an important tool toward sustainable urban development. The Kochi Water Metro project has shown how cities can carry on the tradition of water transport into the future.


Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance (CCFLA). Project Preparation Resource Directory.

Cities Development Initiative for Asia. 2010. Pre-Feasibility Study on Urban Transport in Cochin, India: Investment Proposal – Ferry Services.

Kochi Municipal Corporation. 2023. Master Plan for Kochi Municipal Corporation Area 2040. Volume 1: Study and Analysis.

Kochi Water Metro.

Rudini Baoy
Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, Cities Development Initiative for Asia

Rudini Baoy is a development management specialist with more than 15 years of experience in planning, monitoring, and evaluation of development programs/projects in Asia. He was contracted by Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2016 to provide monitoring and evaluation (M&E) advisory services to CDIA. Previously, he served as M&E consultant in projects of Japan International Cooperation Agency, ADB, and World Bank-International Finance Corporation, focusing on agriculture, rural development, local governance, disaster mitigation, and public infrastructure sectors.

An Rubenecia
Communications and Outreach Specialist, Cities Development Initiative for Asia

An Rubenecia has more than 14 years of experience leading communication initiatives in urban development, environmental conservation, and public health. At CDIA, she is responsible for facilitating public relations and knowledge management efforts. She leads the planning, conceptualization, and production of targeted communication materials and knowledge products aimed at helping cities learn innovative project ideas and best practices. She supports project documentation and promotes outreach and institutional linkages with regional network partners to advance sustainable urban development.

Cities Development Initiative for Asia (CDIA)

Cities Development Initiative for Asia (CDIA) is a multi-donor trust fund managed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). As a project preparation facility, it helps secondary cities in Asia and the Pacific prepare bankable and sustainable infrastructure investments. It receives funding support from Austria, European Union, France, Germany, Republic of Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund.

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