All Commentary
Sunday, December 31, 2017

Bike Taxi Bans in India Are Bad for Everyone

I took a Rapido to work today, and now I want the government to legalize bike taxis.

This morning, when I left for work, I decided to try something different. I normally take an Uber Pool or Ola Share to work because of Bangalore’s acute lack of proper transport services. Sharing a ride makes sense for a middle-class professional in his mid-20s because it’s cheap, and it’s faster and more convenient than a bus.

However, today the city witnessed some major traffic snarls and fares were, naturally, on the higher side. Looking at my options, I decided to try Rapido — a bike taxi aggregator. While I was experiencing a similar experience to my usual ride, I was surprised, for the ride was much faster and much more comfortable. The reason is simple common sense — bikes can navigate congested areas better.

The interesting thing, however, is that bike taxis are banned in the states of Karnataka and Maharashtra — two states that contribute the lion’s share to India’s economy. While the concept of bike taxis is not exactly new to India — they have been operational in the state of Goa since 1980 — the Uberization of the segment is, quite obviously, a recent affair.

Too Many Regulations, Too Many Obstructions

Maharashtra’s Transport Minister was quoted saying, “Such taxis are extremely unsafe and should not be allowed.” Due to the highly regulated nature of the economy, nobody really worked on getting bike taxis on the street. At the same time, due to the licence permit raj, many states withheld the issuance of taxi permits leading to an artificial scarcity in the sector. Further, India’s quasi-federal structure puts the power to make decisions of this nature in the hands of the state and not the city, under the framework of the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 and its various state-level counterparts. However, the neo-liberal regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004 ensured that the only requirement for bike taxis was a commercial registration along with a yellow registration number plate.

In 2015, there were several companies such as HeyTaxi, HeyBob, m-Taxi, Baxi, and more operating across various cities. Barely two weeks after HeyTaxi rolled out its services in Mumbai, the Maharashtra state government decided to ban it, although the service continues to operate, albeit now using loopholes in the law. When Uber and Ola launched their Uber Moto and Ola Bikes platform, they were quickly hounded out of several states with vehicles seized for mundane reasons from lack of permissions to lack of yellow number plates.

Maharashtra’s Transport Minister was quoted saying, “Such taxis are extremely unsafe and should not be allowed,” even though the state was planning to regularize them. Karnataka went to the extent of banning not only bike taxis, but also bus services operated by Ola and also tried to ban UberPool and OlaShare earlier this year, all while citing sections of the nearly 30-year-old MV Act. The state then took itself back to the Stone Age with a ban on pillion riders on bikes whose engine capacities were below 100cc.

It is, however, interesting to note states such as Telangana, Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan have deregulated the sector, allowing bike taxis to ply their trade. In Punjab, the government launched a subsidy program to offer two-wheelers, which — although a form of socialism — is still better than a complete ban. Rajasthan and Telangana both signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Uber, with Telangana going to the level of having its Information Technology minister take a ride along with former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

Bike Taxis Are Great. Why Ban Them?

As a regular commuter, the average working professional is more likely to understand the travails of the daily urban ride. Government officials rarely take public transport, often having their own chauffeured cars, which completely insulate them from what we would have to go through on a daily basis. Along with this, government transport projects usually follow a “one size fits all” approach that creates a homogenous transit network in a heterogeneous society. The benefits of ridesharing are there for all to see. It affords people the chance of a better lifestyle — one they may have never imagined previously. It provides better options to the daily commuter and helps a lot in clearing up the transport mess that our cities are subject to.

Why not stop the whataboutery and legalize them? For the driver, bike taxis have a higher return on investment. The most common bike in India, especially for taxis, is the Hero Splendor that costs around ₹50,000, depending on the state. In contrast, the most popular car that is used for ride-sharing, the Maruti Swift Dzire Tour, costs upwards of ₹500,000 for its diesel-powered variant. Fares for bike taxis vary anywhere from ₹2 per kilometer to ₹6 per kilometer, significantly cheaper than a shared or pooled ride.

Many a bike taxi driver moonlights as a delivery person for food delivery platforms as well, so why not allow them to engage in productive labor when they’re otherwise idle?

The biggest plus point is that you get to see more women drivers around. Women in India have preferred two-wheelers to four-wheelers for decades now and with issues cropping up about the safety of women, especially since there is only one other person on a bike, it makes a lot of difference. After UberMoto’s launch in Haryana, a woman in Gurgaon completed a thousand trips in one year.

When it becomes so apparent that bike taxis take the benefits of ride-sharing a step further, why not stop the whataboutery and legalize them? More operators will also mean better services — drivers often switch providers depending on the prevalent fare. Also, given that it is clear that it benefits women as well, it should be legalized on a priority basis. Concerns about safety in terms of drivers assaulting and harassing people is on an unfounded basis — it is a two-wheeler; doing anything will certainly cause an accident.

Hindering innovations like bike taxis is only going to take things several steps backward. The lack of an open operating environment will slow down — or even stop — innovations in the manufacturing industry. The freedom to operate bike taxis may see increased research and development in making bikes more efficient, faster, and safer. Given how not only bike taxis but also pillion riders are being made unwelcome, innovation will just keep stagnating.

  • Srikanth Ramakrishnan is a Libertarian Hindu who wishes to see a market oriented transport sector in India. He is a Senior Sub-Editor at Swarajya, India's premiere right of centre magazine that advocates Freedom of Enterprise.