Hire a taxi, sell your car!

Hire a taxi, sell your car!

It is raining taxis in Bengaluru. Caught in the twister of this taxi fare war, old cab and autorickshaw drivers are crying hoarse. But the commuters aren’t. Pampered by the unprecedented and potentially unsustainable drop in fares, they are dumping the rickshaws big time.

Are they now ready to dump their personal vehicles as well in exchange for a convenient taxi ride? Has the time for congestion tax finally arrived?
For years, Bengalureans cursed their labourious ride to office and back.

Trapped in gruelling, hours-long traffic jams. They still do. But they suddenly seem to have a choice, overnight. Cabs that once defined “luxury” have dropped to affordable levels, giving people an escape route from those harassing auto rides. Many even find it convincing to argue that these cabs could be part of a refurbished public transport system. 

Is Bengaluru, with its still explosive vehicular base of an astounding 50 lakh, then ready for a smart switch away from personal transport, at least in the Central Business District (CBD)? Can the government earmark areas within the City’s core that is made prohibitively expensive for personal cars through a hefty congestion tax? Are the citizens ready for a zone where only taxis, autorickshaws and public transport buses are allowed to ply free?

Not so fast, contend the traditional taxiwallahs convinced that the discounted taxi fares are a gimmick to acquire customers and thus will not last long. Not so easily, say urban commute experts, who point to Bengaluru’s multiple CBDs, its radial growth structure, and the complexity of evolving a uniform system without valid data.

Understand mobility patterns

The Bengalurean’s mobility pattern, how he/she moves and in what mode, is critical to understand what model fits best for the City, reasons Sanjay Sridhar, Regional Director of the C40 Cities group. “A comprehensive mobility survey should yield this hardcore data on how people commute in multiple modes. This pattern should then be integrated with different modes of transport including taxis, autorickshaws, BMTC buses, the Metro and commuter rail,” he says.

Unlike cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru’s growth is oriented along the arterial roads heading out from the Centre. These arterial roads have turned urban roads. So, a conventional CBD approach cannot be applied here, as Sridhar put it. “There are many CBDs here. A congestion pricing policy to restrict personal vehicles has to be contextualized.”

But the big ticket taxi operators are ready to play the waiting game. Congestion tax or no tax, CBD or no CBD, they know commuters will eventually realize the poor economics of owning a car. “Any private car that people buy is used for less than 200 days and runs less than 10,000 kms a year,” points out Rajiv Vij, MD and CEO, Carzonrent (India), which operates 1,600 cars including Easy Cabs in the city.

Owning a sedan could get even costlier. As Meru Cabs CEO, Siddhartha Pahwa explains, the monthly expense could go beyond Rs. 40,000. “You need to set aside Rs. 10 to 12,000 for EMI, another 12,000 for the driver, about Rs. 8,000 for fuel and Rs. 5,000 for maintenance and repair. The cost of running a private car then works out to a steep Rs. 30 a kilometer,” he elaborates.

One taxi = 41 private cars

Studies have shown that each taxi cab helps take off 41 private cars from the road. So, when the operators compete to capture chunks of the city’s dynamic taxi market, it could potentially arrest the unbridled growth of four-wheelers. Cars and SUV numbers in Bengaluru grew by an astounding 30 per cent over the last five years.

The benefits of a complete shift to personalised public transport should be obvious to all, office-goers in particular. If work from home is not an option, and the office commute time is an issue, taxis offer the convenience of working on the move. If car-pooling has not taken off, taxi car-pooling could be an alternative worth trying. The latter choice could also make sound economic sense even if the introductory, discounted taxi fares begin to climb.

The intense fare competition amongst taxi operators has definitely put the autorickshaws on the backfoot. Faced with dwindling customer numbers, many auto drivers are toying with car purchase options. Yet, the three-wheelers needn’t vanish from the city roads. As Ola Cabs’ reported plan to introduce Ola autos on a pilot basis indicate, they could fit perfectly with a multi-modal transport system. Perhaps, the changing dynamics might even improve the auto drivers’ etiquette while dealing with customers.

Multi-modal commute

The idea is to give customers the choice of transport. “Every mode of transport has its use. Autorickshaws are still the best way for short trips. In Mumbai, for instance, the Kaali Peeli taxis are still around because their numbers and availability are high. People who are used to them will continue to travel in them,” notes Ananth Subramaniam, Director, Marketing & Communications, Ola Cabs.

Autorickshaws, provided they turn professional, are also the best bet to ensure the much required last-mile connectivity. But these three-wheelers become notoriously unavailable when it rains, and extremely pricey after dark. Here’s where a well-developed taxi network can make a difference. Yet, experience shows the taxis too go the autorickshaw way when showers take over the city.

Subramaniam has an explanation for this: When it rains, the number of calls increase. Demand spikes, and the density of cars in a given area drops. The solution could be more vehicles. But how many more taxi vehicles can the city accomodate? Pahwa contends that if Singapore, with only a fifth of Bengaluru’s area and population, can run an efficient taxi service with 17,000 vehicles, Bengaluru will require at least one lakh taxis to provide quality service.

In a city with 10 lakh cars, a majority of them private and self-driven, the addition of more taxi cabs might add to the already unsustainable vehicular numbers. But if every taxi added removes at least a dozen private cars from the roads, this just could be an option worth taking.

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