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Spokes in the bike-taxi wheels

Rasheed Kappan, Bengaluru, Mar 12, 2016, DHNS 0:57 IST
Despite their potential to reduce commute time and cost, bike-taxi aggregators are facing a massive crackdown. Nipped in the bud is the collective enthusiasm of a bunch of startups to decongest the roads. CONCEPT & DESIGN / RASHEED KAPPAN & G BALAJI NANGALI
Despite their potential to reduce commute time and cost, bike-taxi aggregators are facing a massive crackdown. Nipped in the bud is the collective enthusiasm of a bunch of startups to decongest the roads.

Two-wheelers account for a whopping 40 lakh out of Bengaluru’s estimated 58 lakh vehicles. So, doesn’t it make eminent sense to run some of them as bike taxis, a cheaper and quicker commute mode to beat the city’s notorious traffic mess? But, driven by a permit system perfected ages ago, the Transport department says No!”

The department’s seizure of 62 bike-taxis operated by Uber on Friday is in line with its plan to rein in the new players. But in its rush to uphold an archaic permit raj, isn’t the commuter the loser?

It is not just Ola and Uber. Eager to find innovative ways to address the city’s commute woes, a host of urban mobility startups have sprung up. But even as the young social entrepreneurs merge technology with utility, their collective enthusiasms have been nipped in the bud by the crackdown.

So, what exactly is the department’s problem? Transport commissioner Ramegowda articulates it in the straightjacket of rules and regulations. “Currently, there are no bike-taxi rules. Any taxi should have a yellow board, permit and driver should carry a badge. Otherwise, how can they operate?”

Questions of safety

Taking the safety route, he wonders how the motorcycle rider could be trusted if the passenger is a woman. “If there are incidents of rape and kidnapping, who should be held responsible?” But both Ola and Uber insist their riders’ antecedents are verified and every ride is tracked through GPS devices.

The entire approach, as urban commute analyst Muralidhar Rao points out, is just to obstruct. “Crimes or accidents can be readily traced, acting as deterrence to misbehaviour. But why should government block an effort to boost public transport?”

BMTC services, says Rao, are woefully inadequate to meet the city’s mounting public transport demands. Inevitably, this has sparked a huge explosion in private car and motorcycle numbers, triggering massive congestion on the road. If taxi cabs and bike-taxis could divert the private, personal traffic, why raise objections?

Procedures, rules

Ramegowda does not totally shut the doors on bike-taxis. He insists that the concept is nothing new and have been in existence in other states, most notably in Goa. But there is a procedure: Operators should apply to the Regional Transport Authority (RTA), who will then consider them based on the requirement.

That could take months. New rules to regulate the cab taxi operators have been talked about for a year. But why make the mobility players wait when the response for app-based taxis, structured car-pooling and other innovations has been overwhelming?

Sensing the huge potential in Bengaluru, bike-taxi aggregators had started queuing up for permits months ago. By December last year, at least 15 proposals were before the Jayanagar Regional Transport Office, the agency that issues taxi permits within city limits. Three aggregators had actually sought the permits, having prepared elaborate plans to operate bike-taxis. The Transport commissioner, however, maintains that Ola or Uber were not among them.

Smaller players

But smaller aggregators in a league far below the two biggies have already been in the bike-taxi field in Bengaluru. They did not show up in the RTA radar since their fleets were just not big enough. Some of them are still active despite the recent crackdown. One early starter now operates in most parts of the city but limits the rides from Monday to Saturday between 7.30 am and 12.30 pm, and from 4 pm to 10 pm.

Taking the bike-taxi concept to the realm of ride-sharing, startups are also now emerging with an offer to monetise a ride. If a motorcyclist is riding alone, why leave the pillion seat empty? This could take the whole debate to an entirely new level. But for now, the bike-taxi aggregators have no choice but to wait till the department issues fresh guidelines, stick that label of legality and lift the ban.

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