Obstructing the Disruptive? The Curious Case of City Cabs

Not only have radio cabs – and now, cab aggregators like Uber and Ola – changed the way we travel, they have changed a way of life. Will counterintuitive regulations dial back the clock on competitive urban mobility options?

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Not only have radio cabs – and now, cab aggregators like Uber and Ola – changed the way we travel, they have changed a way of life. Reasonably regulating the industry and ensuring the comfort and safety of all travellers is a noble aspiration but are counterintuitive regulations threatening to dial back the clock on competitive urban mobility options? Last week, a few of us at work started talking about startups in India and how “disruption” seemed to be everyone’s favourite word these days. If you have had anything to do with the tech world at all, the word may be the unspoken norm for you but then most of us lesser mortals continue to struggle with technology itself. Change and the need to recalibrate scares us. Just last night, a slightly older colleague was staring at a website on his desktop computer trying to understand what that strange beast Uber was all about. He had just downloaded the app and was planning to book his first ride, after years of taking pre-booked late night office cabs back from work. Cut to Mumbai, the city I am currently visiting, and an online campaign (#MumbaiWantsUber) is underway to petition the Maharashtra Transport Department to reconsider some provisions of its proposed ‘Çity Taxi Scheme 2015’ that has seen over 40,000 signups within a few days by Uber faithfuls. It’s a subject close to the hearts of many who want to preserve their right to choose a better, cheaper way to travel in a city with traffic moments that can make even seasoned Delhiites cry. So, what’s all the fuss about? Counting down in Maximum City A few weeks ago, the Government of India released an advisory regarding ‘On-demand Information Technology based Transportation platforms’– like Uber and Ola, for the uninitiated – that allow users to leverage their GPS-enabled platform, by connecting them round-the-clock via an app or a website to available cabs in the vicinity that are partner drivers on their platform. Not only can cab drivers access faster and more fares, users can book, track and rate their ride via a few taps right from their phone screens even as the entire transaction is tracked and captured at the backend. Uber, for example, allows for competitive pricing, based on existing demand and supply where ‘surge pricing’ during peak times can make your ride costlier but will allow you to travel for cheap when there are enough cabs to meet a city’s burgeoning demand. Ola has been trying to beat that by looking to wage its own price war, which is obviously good news for those of us who have been long been at the mercy of kaali-peeli taxis and autos. No haggling, no waiting by the roadside, no paper and often only a few sentences exchanged between the driver and the rider. What’s more, all the various taxi apps work across cities where their service is available. I know I am less worried about finding myself in an alien city and not having to spend precious minutes in busy days arguing over fares. The central advisory, however, has given state governments the freedom to formulate their own rules and the Maharashtra government’s ‘City Taxi Scheme 2015’ seeks to bring previous ones like the Fleet Taxi Scheme 2006, Phone/Fleet Taxi Scheme 2010 and Call Taxi Scheme 2010 under the ambit of the 2015 version. Proposed provisions have been thrown open to public comments till October 31st. While requirements for licensees include stringent and welcome rules on drivers’ background checks that bar drivers with non-cognizable offences, there are others that seem not just counterintuitive but are being seen by many as scuttling the very promise of a new world for harried commuters. The idea of regulating fares at a time when an air conditioned cab can cost less than an auto rickshaw, seems distinctly odd in a city like Mumbai – India’s financial capital and a testament to the power of the free market. Also, what use are LED panels on the roof, marking cabs available or non-available, to a taxi that is not meant to, or even allowed, to be hailed from the roadside in the first place? Isn’t the idea that there is someone who knows you’ve got into one the whole point of the exercise in safety? Nor does the cap on the maximum number of vehicles (at the proposed 4000) make sense in cities that are still struggling to meet the demand for faster, cheaper transport over both short distances and long. Besides, putting a cap on the number of vehicles might lead to the proliferation of multiple operators, with some even pushing ownership details underground to maintain larger fleets to meet a ballooning demand. Then there is the issue of clean-fuel stipulations permitting only those vehicles to operate that run on petrol/LPG/CNG and hybrid fuel, effectively banning those that run on diesel – something that has been hanging fire in a dangerously polluted Delhi for a while now. Getting diesel vehicles off the roads may definitely help us breathe easier in the long run but it begs the question: cold turkey or a gradual phase out that respects the livelihoods of those who have invested in their new cabs and are struggling to pay them off? The provision necessitating printed receipts seems archaic at a time where the Indian railways and even our international airports allow you to walk in without a piece of paper! Uber, with over 1,85,000 driver partners on their platform pan-India and a 40 percent month-on-month growth, has made its very own legal representation to the Government of Maharashtra’s transport department. With its recent investment of $1billion in India, it is now looking to aim at a million trips in a day. Another element that is likely to be contentious is the provision holding a licensee jointly liable along with the driver for any injury, harm, offence or crime committed by the driver. It’s still a grey area and while fixing stringent liability for wrongdoing is welcome, it does require a better understanding of the business models that power the relationship between aggregators and drivers on their platform. India has long been a testing bed for global businesses and there is still a lot of welcome churning that is bound to push for ‘reasonable’ regulation. The burden of change Disruptive. That’s exactly what Uber is. Disruptive. That’s exactly what Meru and Easy Cabs were a few years ago. I had the chance to talk to a Meru cabbie during the days the radio cab company maintained a kiosk at the New Delhi Railway Station. Step out at either end of the bustling hub and you’re likely to be accosted by all sorts of vehicle operators peddling a variety of dodgy rides at even dodgier prices. Heaven forbid you should reach on a freezing winter morning or a sweltering afternoon when your resolve to haggle or wait is at its weakest. Not only have radio cabs – and now, cab aggregators like Uber and Ola – changed the way we travel, they have changed a way of life. Gone are days when women who travel on their own for work fairly often – had to request a spouse, relative or friend to drop and collect them from the airport. Or rely on expensive pre-booked options instead of altering an entire business schedule to leave and arrive at ‘a decent hour’ only to turn to dilapidated cabs with suspiciously defunct meters, leery drivers and rickety, non-air-conditioned rides that rattled as much as they stank. Not to mention all that haggling and the consequent humiliation of accepting that you were not much of a bargainer for a true-blue desi! So when I read a recent statement by the Secretary for Road Transport and Highways, Mr. Vijay Chibber, that “an app-based cab should be treated as a normal cab”, I couldn’t help but wonder what that “normal” was. While I seriously appreciate the fact that we are finally talking about making not just public transport but all mobility options for women safer in our cities, I wonder if we can create a level playing field that does not mean regulating what is seen as ephemeral but bringing the all-too-ugly and tangible to the same level where we can exercise a fair choice. “Normal” would be when I can call any cab I want to ferry me to the airport before dawn. Better still, where I can step into any other mode of public transport to do the same. That railway station kiosk, for the short while it lasted, offered a new beacon of fair-price, duly-metered hope amid an ocean of treacherous kaali-peelis. Not so for some of the radio cab drivers who came and went. I was told by a few how their colleagues and friends were attacked by concealed blades and darts by veterans visibly upset about their loosening chokehold on travellers. I’m not sure what the ultimate reasons for its removal were but that kiosk is no longer there. In any case, we are inching forward to a time when a moving dot on our mobiles will completely replace the LED beacons and kiosks that we often seek in an alien city. The idea can scare those long used to a different way of life. It seems we have now entered the next level of this game of change with the next-generation of disruptors bearing the brunt of our natural suspicion of the new. As for me, I thank all those moving dots on my phone for allowing me to sit back and enjoy a hassle-free ride at night or early in the morning on my way to someplace else.