One of the great pleasures of visiting other countries is seeing how different cultures have attempted to solve the great human problem of getting from A to B. The question of transit is both a personal human undertaking and also a national challenge, essential for individuals and societies to thrive.
What’s so interesting is the vast array of solutions we’ve come up with to such a universal puzzle. There are often unique local obstacles to navigate, but the variety of different forms of public transport is wonderfully broad.
In India there is a striking number of options – some ingenious, some seemingly bonkers – but then when you have a billion people to move around a bit of variety is understandable. Pedal power is still in effect, the classic cycle rickshaw is a genteel option for short trips. Busses packed to bursting careen through city centres with passengers dangling off the side or climbing onto the roof (Virgin Trains eat your heart out). The busses don’t so much as stop but decelerate long enough for customers to hurl themselves aboard. Grand looking Hindustan Ambassador taxis lazily cruise the streets often overcharging with a new wave of Uber and Ola drivers snapping at their heels.
But by far the most fun form of transport for traversing Indian cities is the auto-rickshaw. A physical and economic marvel, you can be whisked across town for a few rupees in what feels like a cross between a go-kart and a Rascal van. They perform up to 20% of the 229 million motorised trips taken every day in Indian cities. The multitude of crisscrossing routes means you can usually catch one to where you want to go, but determining the routes can be a challenge. Local knowledge is vital. Stops are also a fluid concept, most will pull over to squeeze on another fare. It’s amazing how what seems like a vehicle with three passenger seats can multiply into six with some judicious lap-sitting and a bit of hanging off the side.
Each of these three-wheeled people movers represents an act of economic endeavour, an entrepreneurial venture into the fast flowing current of Indian transport competition. They provide jobs for tens of thousands of drivers and are inexpensive to buy and run. As old models are replaced by modern versions powered by compressed natural gas, they are also helping reduce pollution in overcrowded urban areas.
Such is their ubiquity it’s understandable that Uber turned its sights on trying to capitalise the auto-rickshaw market. The patchy and chaotic arrangement for matching supply and demand, as well as sometimes variable pricing, left inefficiencies in the system crying out for some tech-based organisation. Using the billion mobile phones in India, initially hail companies would track real-time driver availability by text message. As the number of smartphones has increased, however, the use of live GPS tracking has allowed the potential for riders and drivers to connect in a timely and systematic way.
This mash-up of new and old technology spawned a host of start-up hailing firms with home-grown Indian companies Jugnoo, AutoWale and Ola seeing off competition from Uber which has suspended its auto-rickshaw service in India. Jugnoo, which bought out AutoWale last year, recently raised $10 million in its latest investment round.
Empowering drivers, many of whom are illiterate, with technology has seen incomes double and brought at least a little order to an often haphazard and stressful job.
With so many people to keep on the move, improving the efficiency of India’s auto-rickshaws is a significant contribution to the country’s transport mix, especially for the less well-off who rely on this low cost form of transportation. As Jugnoo CEO Samar Singla said:
“Uber is for the top 20 per cent of people, we’re for the bottom 80 per cent.”